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The Dysfunctional Family And Mental Illness

Growing up in a household with parents who have some form of ‘mental illness’ produces children with lower self‐esteem, teens with greater dysphoria (a profound state of unease) and subsequent socially anxiety in adulthood according to one study[i].

For those of us raised in homes with mental health issues, we certainly know it, don’t we?

What Is Mental Health & Mental Illness?

Mental Health

Mental health can be described as the psychological state of someone who is functioning at satisfactory level of emotional resilience and behavioral adjustment.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health includes "subjective well-being, perceived self-efficacy, autonomy, competence, inter-generational dependence, and self-actualization of one's intellectual and emotional potential, among others." [ii]

The WHO further states that the well-being of an individual is encompassed in the realization of their abilities, coping with normal stresses of life, productive work and contribution to their community. Cultural differences, subjective assessments, and competing professional theories all affect how "mental health" is defined.

Interestingly, the WHO also states that mental health is the level of psychological well-being often measured by the absence of any mental illness.

What is Mental Illness?

Mental illness indicates its presence when strong feelings of tension and anxiety become overwhelming that people have great difficulty functioning on a normal day-to-day basis.

There are different types and degrees of severity of mental illnesses.

At their most extreme, people may not be able to physically care for themselves, leave the house or may have compulsive rituals to help them with their anxiety. Less common are mental illnesses that may involve psychosis, which may involve delusions, hallucinations, where the person sees, hears, smells, or tastes things that are not there.

Here’s a list of common types of mental illnesses

Anxiety disorders

People with anxiety disorders respond situations with fear and dread, as well as with physical signs of anxiety or panic

Mood disorders

These disorders, involve persistent feelings of sadness or periods of feeling overly happy, or fluctuations from extreme happiness to extreme sadness. The most common disorders are depression and bipolar.

Psychotic disorders

Psychotic disorders involve distorted awareness and thinking with hallucinations and delusions. Schizophrenia is an example of a psychotic disorder.

Eating disorders

These involve extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors involving weight and food. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating are the most common disorders.

Impulse control and addiction disorders

People with impulse control disorders are unable to resist urges, or impulses, to perform acts that could be harmful to themselves or others. Alcohol and drug are common objects of addictions as well as kleptomania, compulsive sex or compulsive gambling.

Personality disorders.

Narcissistic, antisocial and paranoid are all examples of personality disorders. People with personality disorders have extreme and inflexible personality traits that are distressing to the person and cause problems at work and within families.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

People with OCD are plagued by constant thoughts (obsessions) or fears that cause them to perform certain rituals or compulsions.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is a condition that can develop following a traumatic and/or terrifying event, such as being abused as a child, sexual or physical assault, the unexpected death of a loved one or a natural disaster. People with PTSD often tend to be emotionally numb.

A Dysfunctional Family Is More Than Just Mental Illness

There are patterns of behavior that may not be deemed as mental illness but have just as much of a negative influence on the whole family.

These include:

  • Parents using violence as a form of control over their children.

  • If children witness domestic abuse whether it’s aimed at them, siblings or parents.

  • Parents who use their children as caretakers, insisting they clean up or meet the parent’s emotional needs.

  • When children are witness to parental promiscuity or inappropriate sexual behavior.

  • If children live in fear of parental anger.

  • If parents are unable to provide care in terms of physical, emotional or financial support.

  • When religious or political extremism is present and the children have no choice but to adhere to the rigid fanaticism.

  • If parents force the children to takes sides in their arguments.

  • Parental alcoholism or addiction

What Is A Dysfunctional Family?

Dysfunctional families are the product of an emotionally dishonest, shame based, patriarchal society based upon beliefs that do not support a loving environment in which children can thrive.

When we talk about dysfunctional families we mean families with parents who have very poor parenting skills that have often evolved because of mental illnesses.

The sort of ‘dysfunction’ we’re talking about is when some of the following are present: neglect, violence, abandonment, shame, conditional love, lack of consistency in parenting, no clear boundaries, gender prejudice, sexuality intolerance, denial of feelings etc.

Of course, we rarely see a family that isn’t dysfunctional. And perhaps anyone can identify with one or more of the above characteristics but of course it’s all in the scale or the proportion of the dysfunction.

Some families that may seem extremely dysfunctional but, at the end of the day, all the family members feel loved, respected and supported. At the other end if the scale, however, severely dysfunctional families can result in very unhappy children.

When Do The Dysfunctional Family and Mental Illness Overlap?

When a parent member of a family suffers with mental illness the whole family is affected. It is rare for children to be unscathed. One study[iii] shows that the family environment with higher levels of anxiety and other disorders had higher levels of conflict.

The children were less motivated, organized and fulfilled because the families were not functioning in a way that puts the children’s needs first.

What Are The Children’s Needs?

Here’s a list of what children need to be happy:

  • To be fed (with nourishing food) and watered

  • To be safe, warm, sheltered and secure

  • To be touched, held and caressed

  • To be loved unconditionally

  • To be respected as a unique human being, regardless of behavior

  • To make mistakes

  • To ask for what they need

  • To say they don’t understand

  • To change their minds

  • To decline responsibility for another’s problems

  • To express their feelings

A home where one or other of the parents has a mental illness very rarely puts the children’s needs first. When you overlap the dysfunctional family and mental illness, the children are dealt a double blow.

Children suffer stress in many ways and the overwhelming pressures lead to emotional disturbances. These emotional disturbances become emotional wounds and unless someone outside the family helps the child, or the family gets help as a whole, most children grow up with these unhealed wounds inside them.


Here's an article with more details on dysfunctional families:


How Being Raised In A Dysfunctional Family Affects You As An Adult

We don’t even realise we were affected by our dysfunctional family and mental illness that were grew up with. How could we? We were surviving it and part of the survival strategy was to deny it.

But we can’t escape the trauma as it continues into adulthood. Here’s a list of traits that indicate we were raised in a dysfunctional family.

8 Signs We Were Raised In A Dysfunctional Family

1. We feel guilty when we stand up for ourselves. It’s when we assume we are in the wrong in situations that are clearly not our fault. Yet, we feel guilty for standing up for ourselves.

2. We fear being abandoned. Many raised in a dysfunction family live in fear of being left behind because we often were abandoned as a child. Like being left alone in a house, car or it can also mean emotional abandonment. When we were shamed, got harsh statements or overly criticised.

3. We're people pleasers. This is usually a survival trait, which develops as a result of being regularly abandoned in an attempt to disarm people when we are frightened of them.

4. We feel lonely and isolated. Being raised in a dysfunctional family often means living with a secret inner fear that we a fraud and, once that's found out, we will be abandoned so we keep ourselves hidden.

5. We worry incessantly about the future. Those of us raised in a dysfunction family try to control the future to try and make us feel safer. This leads to anxiety.

6. We feel super responsible for others. We believe it's our job to fix others. By doing this we’re able to distract ourselves from our own pain.

7. We feel like victims. This rolls on from point two because it's the flip side. Behaving like a victim is a way of us trying to get your emotional needs met. When we roll up in a ball and plead for help, we think we are less likely to be abandoned.

8. We judge ourselves mercilessly. This comes from being judged as a child: 'What, do you think I'm made of money?' - 'You are the most selfish child I know!' - 'You're never grateful for anything I do for you are you?' We have no other framework from which to function. At a deep level we believe we deserve it.

We leave home but the problems don't magically disappear

We hope that once we leave home, we leave our family and childhood problems behind. However, many of us found that we experience similar problems, as well as similar feelings and relationship patterns; long after they we’ve left the family environment.

If we were raised in a healthy family we would learn that, as adults, ideally, we would feel worthwhile and valuable, know that our feelings and needs are important and can be expressed. We would probably form healthy, open relationships as adults.

However, if we were raised in a dysfunctional family, the lack of our childhood emotional and physical needs would very likely lead us to have low self esteem and feel that our needs are not important or perhaps should not be taken seriously by others. Consequently, we form unsatisfying relationships as adults.

This is because as adults of dysfunctional families find it difficult to trust the behaviors and words of others and, more importantly, our own judgement and actions. This can bleed into problems at work and every social interaction.

The Final Note On The Dysfunctional Family And Mental Illness

Adults raised in dysfunctional families with mental illness are more at risk of developing mental health issues themselves.

One study[iv] suggests that harmful effects that childhood emotional maltreatment has on long-term adult mental health. It’s also clear that if we don’t receive the care and support we need to recover from out childhood wounds, we are much more likely to pass on the emotional damage to the subsequent generation.

The overlap happens when the mental illness creates the dysfunction within the family and the children grow up, perhaps taking unresolved trauma into their own family and recreating the dysfunction.

The Family We Dreamed Of








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