Functional Families vs dysfunctional Families – an Overview

by | Jun 3, 2018 | Education, Family life


When I get asked about my childhood, I mostly reply: « Well, my family was pretty dysfunctional». Some well-meaning people might say: Well you know, no family is perfect!
Of course.
However, there are ways to determine whether a family is healthy (functional) – or unhealthy (dysfunctional).

For me, family has always been something of great importance. Experiencing how Family patterns lay a foundation in the life of the children, how families with unhealthy patterns undermine a child’s growth, maturity and success in life – has greatly impacted the way I invest time and effort to understand how we can create a healthy family.

Understanding these concepts will enable us  to implement a healthy soil in a child’s life, out of which it can become a mature adult, capable of healthy relationships and wise decision making.

To get an idea what the words “functional and dysfunctional” mean, imagine a car.

If my car isn’t in perfect shape, having some rust and bumps, but it’s still functioning, it is possible to drive safely with it, to get from point A to point B.

On the contrary, a dysfunctional family would be a car, that isn’t working at all. Even if it does appear to be a car – a metal box on four wheels, having an engine and a steering wheel – this car will not be capable to bring you from point A to point B.

It’s the same thing with a family. A family will never be perfect – but those bumps and the rust even the best functioning family can have, won’t change the fact that it’s still fully functioning. The bumps and rust spots can even be fixed with little investment of time and effort.
Sadly, many people I know don’t spring from a functional family.

I didn’t. Therefore, I needed to dig into that subject, I wanted to understand the difference, how I can break the pattern, how I can create something different than what I experienced.

I have prepared 11 questions on the subject of “family dynamics” for you so that you can enter a little bit deeper into the subject. These questions relate to the experience of your childhood – but they are also valid for your current family – and even your wider circles that are family to you, be it your circle of friends, your congregation or your workplace.

  • Did your family dynamic lead to more loving relationships within the family or did it lead to hurt feelings and resentment?


  • Did your family dynamic lead to deep, honest discussions between the family members or did it lead to family members unwilling to share their deep thoughts, desires, hopes and dreams?


  • Did your family dynamic cause family members to feel safe and secure, or did it cause family members to feel insecure and fearful?


  • Did your family dynamic cause family members to feel under pressure to prove their worth or were they accepted and valued for who they are?


  • Did your family dynamic prompt family members to take responsibility or rather avoid responsibility (in order to avoid conflict or other difficult response)


  • Did your family dynamic wound family members or build them up and encourage them?


  • Did your family dynamic resolve conflicts in a way that represented both persons interests or was there a clear winner and loser… and was the winner the same person every time?


  • Did your family dynamic lead to a desire to love God and acknowledge that he’s happy with who you are or was there a focus on performance, achievement and submission only?


  • Did your family dynamic lead to maturity in each and every family member or did it lead to weakness and dependence?


  • Did your family dynamic create peacefulness in your home, or did it lead to chaos and anxiety?


  • Did your family dynamic lead to healthy relationships outside the family or did the pattern cause problems in the outside relationships?

In this article I wrote about the difference of «Rules of Families that Nurture vs. Rules that Shame».

Because the subject of family is so huge and has so many layers, I’ve tried to come up with an overview of what I found to be the main issues of difference between a functional and dysfunctional family.

We will see what are – in my opinion – the three main differences of a a.) functional family and a b.) dysfunctional family.

Now let’s zoom in and compare these differences.

a.) ControlValue and worth is based on PerfectionismDon’t talk (and no one listens anyway)
b.) Freedom Value and worth is based on who they areTalk –  it’s ok to talk honestly.

Control vs. Freedom


One must be in control of all interactions, feelings and personal behavior at all times.  (Control is the major defense strategy for shame)
Control leads to the following pattern:

  • The Denial of the five Freedoms. (see section of this article “functional family – freedom”)
    In summary this denies that you should perceive, think, feel, desire or imagine the way you do.  (You should do these the way the perfectionist ideal demands.)
    The result is the reality of a
  • Disabled will – loss of freedom. There is no interest in an individual’s free will. The will has to be submitted to the head of the family. Control in itself is a product of the disabled will.
    Because there is no interest in the individuals’ free will, such a family
  • embraces rules over relationships There is no flexibility. Rules are there to be kept, no matter how profitable this rule is for the individual.
Freedom: A functional family will maintain the five freedoms:

  • Perception – The freedom to see and hear (perceive) what is here and now, rather than what was, will be and should.
  • Think and interpret – The freedom to think what one thinks, rather than what one should think.
  • Feel – The freedom to feel what one feels, rather than what one should feel
  • Want and choose -The freedom to ask for what one wants instead of waiting for permission
  • Imagination – The freedom to take risks in one’s own behalf instead of choosing to be secure and always playing save.
    (by Virgina Satir)

Because of the five freedoms being maintained, trust takes place.
Trust is created where transparency and honesty can take place. Trust creates an environment where accurate expression of emotions, thoughts, and desires is allowed, without shaming. Trust is more important than agreement.

  • In such a family, all relationships are dialogical
    Each person is of equal value. Being of equal value is different to everyone having the same rights. Here everyone is seen with the same value, the same dignity. Children’s developmental limits are taken into account.
  • Family members can get most of their needs to be met. There is freedom to express needs and be taken seriously. A functional family allows all of its members to get their needs to be filled.
  • Where freedom is, family members can be different.
    The uniqueness and singularity of each member of the family (children and adults) is the number one priority.
  • Focusing on relationships rather than rules, family roles are chosen and flexible. They are not simply imposed, but open and flexible. One can be spontaneous without fear of shame and judgment.
  • The family system exists for the individual well-being
  • Fun and laughter are present. The atmosphere is open, everyone can breathe. Everyone can be this individual being. In such a family, everyone grows, matures and learns to make wise choices.

Value and worth is based on Perfectionism vs. Value and worth is based on who they are

Value and worth is based on Perfectionism

You must always be right in everything you do or say
The perfectionistic rule always involves an imposed measurement.
This leads to unrealistic expectations (children in particular learn to be ashamed of being children, of having needs. They learn to act like adults and lose their childhood)

Because value and worth is found in perfectionism, the following rules are naturally created:

  • Never make a mistake – Here again, mistakes reveal the flawed vulnerable self. To acknowledge a mistake is to open oneself to shame. Cover up your own mistakes and if someone else makes a mistake, shame him.
    Something else enters into that pattern:
    The difficulty or even the inability to ask for forgiveness – simply because having to ask for forgiveness reveals one’s “flawed self”, causing shame. As a result, asking for forgiveness will disclose the fact that one is not perfect. Out of that,
  • problems are solved by blaming – as “it can’t be my fault (because I have to be in control…. And I have to be perfect to be loved)”. When life happens and unpredictability takes place, the control rule is broken down. Blame is habitually used to regain the illusion of control and perfection.
  • …And approval must be earned. And if you aren’t good enough, there is no approval, no affirmation. This leads to unhealthy competition. Everyone will be craving for affirmation and approval.

Value and worth is based on who they are (not on perfection)

In such a Family,

  • Problems are addressed, acknowledged and resolved. There is accountability. There is a willingness to acknowledge individual problems, as well as challenges as a family.
  • They will work to resolve those problems.
    This family is able to admit being wrong about something. They know that it’s ok to let there be a problem without finding the cause, therefore, they don’t need to blame others or oneself.
    Because everyone knows that mistakes are not connected to their worth, they can easily be forgiven and viewed as learning tools.

Don’t talk (and no one listens anyway) vs. Talk –  it’s ok to talk honestly

Don’t talk  -( and no one listens)

Don’t talk about anything important or what is really happening.
(even in a situation where everyone knows – everyone pretends not to know.)
This prohibits the full expression of a feeling, need or want. In such a family, members want to hide their true feelings, their deepest thoughts and dreams.
In such a family there is no true understanding, no deep listening, no authentic communication. This leads to the

  • Incompletion rule: The same fights and disagreements go on for years. “Stay upset and confused without resolving differences”. Also,
  • it is not possible to talk out the differences and find a solution…Because there is no way to truly talk to each other about each individual perception. Problems don’t have any room to be discussed,
  • Delusion (fantasy) or denial (refusing to face reality) are used to cope with the situation. In such a family, parents are idealized. Reality is avoided, because it is causing too much pain. Feelings are frozen, then break out in extreme situations, having become incontrollable.
Talk –  it’s ok to talk honestly.
Communication is transparent and consistent. Transparent and consistent communication is the key to establishing separateness and intimacy—transparent communication demands awareness of self and the other, as well as mutual respect for each other’s dignity.
Therefore, in such a family,

  • there is no need to live in delusion or denial.
    They are able to face reality – because it’s ok to see, that there is a problem and they work toward resolving the difference. Therefore, they can
  • Negotiate Differences—This is the crucial task in the process of intimacy foundation. To negotiate differences there must be the desire to cooperate. This desire creates the willingness to fight fair.
You have certainly noticed while reading how restrictive a dysfunctional family is and how releasing a functional one. The beauty of a healthy family is that with increasing individuality, togetherness and thus bonding grows into a strong unity. Isn’t it amazing that this is precisely the reason why the uniqueness of the individual grows and is promoted? I hope that the insights gained from this article will also enable your family, group or congregation to experience new heights and that individual persons can be released in a wonderful way in what they are.

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