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Descriptions of Adult Problems In Dysfunctional Families

When trying to ascertain which problems afflicted which adult family members when we were growing up, it’s helpful to have a list from which we can identify some of the possible causes of their behavior.

Here’s a substantial, but not definitive, list of the most common problems amongst the parents (or care-givers) within dysfunctional families.


A rage-aholic is a term used to describe people who can’t control their rage. They lash out at those around them when their rage is triggered. This lashing out may include breaking things, screaming at loved ones and being physically violent. They blame their rage on people around them. They have serious anger management problems.

They may, unknowingly, stir up situations in the hope of creating an explosive conflict. Rage can become an addiction because they can control others - who fear another outburst – which stimulates an adrenaline rush.


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Alcoholic/heavy drinker

An alcoholic is someone who has strong cravings for alcohol, can’t control their drinking, shows withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking, and continues to drink despite health or other alcohol-related problems.

A heavy drinker is termed* as men who have more than 15 drinks in a week or women who have more than 8 drinks in a week.

*Termed by the Alcohol Program Lead at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Religious fanatic

This is someone who divulges their faith in a way that traumatizes others.

They do things in the ‘name of religion’ by buying into the authority of another person or institution. Any thoughts of common sense or decency are thrown out the window.

Not only does the tyrannical nature of the fanatic frighten the child, it’s also the idea of God watching them and judging everything they do that’s frightening. This creates a barrier when building an adult spiritual practice.

A religious fanatic takes no responsibility for their own choices and instead gives all their power to a church, leader or other authority.

Drama Queen

They like to stir things up, gossip and manipulate others to cause trouble and arguments. The payoff is being the center of attention and thriving on it.

They share, overdramatically, details (which maybe of no interest to anyone else) they are convinced is of great interest to their audience.

The ‘drama queen’ personality is often the life and soul of the party, has a high functioning capacity in social gatherings but tends to suffer deep depression when relationships end.


A philanderer is almost always male and doesn’t really like women but he likes to seduce them as a display of masculinity.

He can seem like a narcissist or even an abuser. With other men he is usually able to follow the rules and ethics. With women, he sees chasing them as his hobby. He doesn’t stay with them too long and runs away when emotional intimacy is on the table.

Women philanderers are almost always single. They have usually been betrayed and are looking to create as much damage as possible.


Violence is behaviour that’s controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and physically harmful.

For children who witness family violence, their brains are affected in the same way as combat affects soldiers, according to research from University College London (UCL).


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Prescribed drug user

This includes the physical dependence on prescribed drugs.

For most people, the initial decision to take prescribed drugs is voluntary. Over a period of time, however, changes in the brain caused by repeated drug abuse affect a person's self control and ability to make sound decisions.

Street drug user

Street drugs are – generally speaking - drugs not prescribed by a doctor.

You may have had a parent who used street drugs occasionally. However, if you knew they were using these drugs, then it was probably an issue when you were growing up if only in that the parents didn’t protect you from their behaviour and that would amount to neglect.

The path to drug addiction begins with the voluntary act of taking drugs. But over time, a person's ability to choose not to do so becomes compromised. Seeking and taking the drug becomes compulsive.


A hypercritical person is someone who makes rude comments, judges our decisions, talks at length about what we’re doing wrong and rarely has anything nice to say.

They are full of complaints, sarcasm, pithy comments and self-righteousness.


In many ways, obesity and anorexia are two extremes of the same problems: an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are characterised by an abnormal attitude towards food that causes someone to change their eating habits and behaviour.

A person with an eating disorder may focus excessively on their weight and shape, leading them to make unhealthy choices about food with damaging results to their health.


A workaholic is someone who is obsessed with his or her work, performance and hooked on a roller coaster of success objectives all of which keep up an adrenalin-high.

They are ego-driven whom, when they reach their goal, immediately set another more ambitious one. Staying at the same level of accomplishment is considered a failure. Children of workaholics rarely see this parent whilst growing up.

Exercise addict

We tend to think of exercise as a really positive thing so it’s hard to assess if someone has an addictive problem with exercise.

An exercise addict is described when exercise is taken to an extreme, It can manifest as a secondary addiction, in which it's secondary to an eating disorder and an individual is exercising only to control or maintain their weight. Or exercise addiction may manifest as a primary addiction, in which there is no underlying pathology.


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People indulge in self-victimization to control or influence other people’s thoughts, feelings and actions.

It’s also to justify their abuse of others, to gain attention or to cope with life. Typically they manipulate or abuse others verbally or physically, but then blame the other person – and that’s often the child of the family.


These are people who are eager to agree with others, fearing disapproval or not fitting in, tend to go along with others’ requests without question.

They can’t say no, have little belief in them and are easily disappointed. They may come across as being constantly exhausted whilst trying to fulfill everyone else’s demands.

The rescuer

The rescuer is the one who runs around taking in all sorts of human and animal strays to give them a sense of self. Their motivation is to be needed but it’s often the case that the rescuer needs rescuing themselves.

They help others without being asked, don’t take time to find out how they can help but assume they know how others need help and they look for admiration from others when they’ve finished. If their services are not acknowledged, their self worth plummets.

A child raised by a rescuer may develop, and feel, overly dependent on others to get through life.

Emotionally unavailable

An emotionally unavailable parent can seem unable to be flexible, can't tolerate stress, displays symptoms angry outbursts characterized by threats of physical violence, wanting to be friends instead of being a parent.

In terms of their own relationships, emotionally unavailable parents attract trouble and turmoil but are always looking for adoration and accolades from others.


Criminal (thief, fraudster etc.)

The criminal parent can manifest in four ways:

  1. The first is a sense of entitlement believing they are owed something no matter what they do in life.

  2. The second is believing anything in life can be achieved through physical or verbal abuse.

  3. The third is when they believe that everything they do is for the betterment of society.

  4. The fourth is the follower and this type of parent believes if they adopt their friends’ goals and desires, they will be loved – no matter the consequences.

A criminal parent will often teach the child why the criminal way is good and why the child should copy them.

Mental health problems

Mental health problems interfere with how a person thinks, feels, and behaves; but to a lesser extent than mental illness.

However, mental health problems may develop into a mental illness if they are not effectively dealt with.

Types of mental illness:

Mental illnesses are of different types and degrees of severity. Some of the major types are depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar mood disorder, personality disorders, and eating disorders.

The most common mental illnesses are anxiety and depressive disorders.

While everyone experiences strong feelings of tension, fear, or sadness at times, a mental illness is present when these feelings become so disturbing and overwhelming that people have great difficulty coping with day-to-day activities, such as work, enjoying leisure time, and maintaining relationships.

At their most extreme, people with a depressive disorder may not be able to get out of bed or care for themselves physically. People with certain types of anxiety disorder may not be able to leave the house, or may have compulsive rituals to help them alleviate their fears.

Less common are mental illnesses that may involve psychosis. These include schizophrenia and bipolar mood disorder.

People experiencing acute episodes of psychosis lose touch with reality and perceive their world differently from normal. Their ability to make sense of thoughts, feelings, and the world around them is seriously affected.

A psychotic episode may involve delusions, such as false beliefs of persecution, guilt, or grandeur. It may involve hallucinations, where the person sees, hears, smells, or tastes things that are not there.

Psychotic episodes can be threatening and confusing especially to children. This type of exposure to a parents’ trauma can have a long lasting effect on a child creating long-term problems for themselves.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)

This is a personality disorder that is also a type of mental health illness. I have separated it out because it deserves a section of its own. Through hearing from thousands of people who suffer from depression, having a parent with NPD often comes up as a possible reason for their own chronic depression.

The signs of someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) are:

  • grandiosity

  • a lack of empathy for other people

  • a need for others to agree with them

  • a need for admiration.

People with this condition are frequently described as arrogant, self-centred, manipulative, and demanding.

They think they are superior or special, and often try to associate with other people they believe are unique or gifted in some way. This association enhances their self-esteem, which is typically quite fragile underneath the surface.

They believe only others who are special and different can understand them. They have unreasonable expectations of others of giving them favourable treatment yet they disregard others’ feelings whilst demonstrating a complete lack of empathy.

Being raised by someone with NPD can leave a legacy of trust issues, low esteem, depression and anxiety. This is because – no matter how hard the child tried – nothing they ever do was ‘good enough’ and for what they didn’t achieve, they were severely punished.

There was no unconditional love or acceptance and no respect for the child’s boundaries or the need for care.


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