A functional family is filled with mutual love, respect, humor, and boundaries.

There’s no such thing as a “perfect” family. Families fight. They sometimes hurt each other. Parents make mistakes, and children do, too.

Families can be imperfect and functional at the same time.

But some families are dysfunctional. According to a 2018 study, growing up in a dysfunctional family can have many negative effects, including mental health challenges and difficulty at work and in relationships.

But what makes a family dysfunctional, and is it possible for your family to become well-functioning? If you think your family has dysfunctional traits, tools such as functional family therapy can help.

We talk a lot about “dysfunctional” families. But to understand dysfunction within families, we need to understand what it is that makes a family functional and healthy.

Families don’t have to be perfect or idyllic to be functional. Arguments will happen, and kids will probably break the rules sometimes. But in a well-functioning family, these hiccups don’t lead to abuse or breakdowns.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a functional family:

  • Enjoys spending time together: They’re able to have fun together despite daily stress and responsibilities.
  • Clearly defines rules and roles: For the most part, every member of the family sticks to the rules. But a crucial feature of a functional family is that the rules are flexible and can change as members of the family grow and change. Part of these established rules is that there are boundaries in place. For example, children aren’t brought into conflicts between parents. And parents don’t try to act like their children’s peers.
  • Embraces mutual respect: The adults are respected as the people in charge, but children are also respected as individuals with their own personalities and desires. Every child is treated equally, and siblings aren’t made to compete against each other for their parents’ love.
  • Doesn’t have abuse and neglect: Parents provide care for their children, and children aren’t expected to take on adult responsibilities. Every member of the family feels safe, and the home is free from violence (both physical and psychological).
  • Engages in healthy conflict: Conflict is allowed in a functional family. When someone doesn’t agree, they’re allowed to express their anger (in respectful ways). No one is shamed for experiencing conflict or appropriate emotion.
  • Celebrates individual differences: Family members are encouraged to have their own feelings about things. The family can change — including parents and children — without anyone getting upset. Each person is free to strive for their individual goals and express their needs.

A dysfunctional family often doesn’t allow individual members to express their emotions or needs. There’s an overall sense of tension within the family.

Families can be dysfunctional for several reasons. It can sometimes be because one or both parents live with an addiction, a mental health condition, or a personality disorder (such as narcissistic personality disorder).

Other times, the family may become dysfunctional because one of the children has emotional or behavioral difficulties, and the family begins to revolve around this child.

But dysfunctional families aren’t usually caused by only one person, although one person’s addiction or behavior may contribute heavily.

Family systems theory states that the family is a complex system in which each member influences the other. So, instead of blaming one person for the dysfunction, it may be more useful to figure out the underlying interactions that may have contributed to the dysfunction.

According to a 2016 article, some common traits of a dysfunctional family include:

  • one or both parents live with a substance use disorder or mental health condition that prevents them from being able to parent in healthy ways
  • children are “parentified” and take on too many responsibilities (such as taking care of a sick parent)
  • parents are absent, so children are left to fend for themselves
  • there’s violence in the household (e.g., children are abused, or there’s partner abuse between parents)
  • there are no clear boundaries or rules within the family, leading to chaos and neglect
  • the family is ruled by one dominant member who doesn’t consider the wants or needs of the other members
  • there’s no demonstration of love or affection between family members, which can sometimes be cultural
  • family members invade each other’s personal privacy without consent (such as parents reading through a child’s journal or diary)
  • communication is stifled, and children aren’t allowed to express themselves
  • children are used as weapons or pawns, either against each other or in parental arguments
  • there’s physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
  • parents expect perfection from their children
  • adherence to authoritarian rules is expected with no flexibility

If you’ve realized that your family is dysfunctional, help is available. There are practices you can adopt to try to create a more functional family.

  • Try to encourage respectful communication between family members. Allowing individual differences in opinions without shaming anyone for their feelings is a good way to do this.
  • Consider creating rules, routines, and structure. This creates predictability and emotional safety. But try to be flexible about these rules and allow them to change as family members grow.
  • Try to avoid using violence or the threat of violence as a punishment.
  • Making sure that parents’ and children’s roles are clear within the family can be helpful. Try to avoid placing parental responsibilities on children or acting like their “friends” instead of a parent.
  • Try to find opportunities to have fun together.

On top of these tips, family therapy could also be helpful. Family therapy can help you address underlying issues and dynamics that have led to a dysfunctional family.

There are many different types of family therapy.

Functional family therapy (FFT) is a short-term, in-home counseling method that focuses on strengthening families to help reduce problematic adolescent behaviors. It includes five phases that build upon each other.

If you have a teen in your family who needs support, FFT could help your family come together to increase your resources, clarify family roles, and give your child the support they need.

No family is perfect. Instead of striving to have a perfect family, try to build a well-functioning one.

Creating a well-functioning family is possible, especially with the right support.

Family therapy methods such as functional family therapy (FFT) can help you address and repair dysfunctional dynamics within your family. You can check out FFT Locations to find one near you.