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Wait, I Am Not Alone? The Truth About Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Family

If you are a part of the Brown Girl Trauma community, you may have started to realize you grew up in a dysfunctional family. 

Have you ever heard your friends talk about how supportive their families were/are growing up and struggling with these thoughts? Or maybe, as an adult, you are finding yourself unable to choose healthier ways of responding to your environment. How often has this thought come to your head, 'I am alone in my experiences.'

dysfunctional family

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The South Asian community specifically tends to brush topics like abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction under the rug. As a result, many times, these dysfunctional behaviors are normalized. Unsurprisingly, most of us grew up thinking we were crazy or alone.

However, when you brush essential topics like these under the rug, you do not realize their impact on your life. Growing up in an unhealthy or dysfunctional family forced you to adopt unhealthy survival habits. These survival habits may continue in your workplace, relationships, and experiences until you do the inner work. Then, you will continue to regress to a stage in your childhood.

If you are someone like me, you may be feeling angry. You are angry that you were robbed of a childhood. It doesn't seem fair that you are working twice as hard to repair the damage you didn't even ask for, and because you are so busy repairing, you are now missing out on adulthood. I understand. Take a breath. 

Some of you may still be trying to figure out how you feel. That is understandable as well. Whatever your experience, it is okay to feel whatever you feel.

You are now reaching a stage where you know you are NOT alone. An entire community stands with you, and healing is possible.

What is a Dysfunctional Family?

A dysfunctional family is a family in which members cause harm to your physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and social health. The word 'dysfunctional' carries negative connotations implying people are dysfunctional, which is not the case. People are not dysfunctional. Their unhealthy patterns, choices, and behaviors are dysfunctional or maladaptive. 

A dysfunctional family has abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction like substance use, mothers being treated violently, witnessing violence, constant arguments, unpredictable (often chaotic) behaviors, extremely rigid or no rules at all, alcoholism, threats to safety, incarceration, untreated mental illness, divorce (having children constantly pick sides), and cultural expectations. This list can go on and on depending on the severity of the dysfunction.

As defined by Dr. Claudia Black, there are three unspoken rules in dysfunctional families- don't talk, don't trust, and don't feel. Unfortunately, the language of denial allows the dysfunctional patterns to continue.

3 Dysfunctional Family Rules

1. Don't Talk

We want everyone to think we are a normal, functional family. So we pretend that everything is okay. This is where the secrets, shame, and guilt come in because you were made to stay silent. It is also why many of you on this page might have shared that you thought you were alone in your experiences.

Breaking this rule meant you were breaking the family norm, making it harder for people to understand that their family was dysfunctional and reaching out for support. When the dysfunctional ways get normalized, it also makes it harder to understand what is 'normal' until you come across other healthy families. 

2. Don't Trust

Your basic needs were probably not met at all or were met halfway (conditional love), which can be highly confusing. This is where the lack of trust comes in. This rule also caused you never to seek outside support. Talking to someone might shake your survival. As a result, you and your family isolated yourselves, and now as an adult, you have rigid ways of dealing with life.

3. Don't Feel

Only certain emotions were allowed in the house. Anything else needed to be hidden away. You want to express your feelings healthily now but may have grown up watching your parents/family cope in highly unhealthy ways. The most common emotion I saw growing up was anger. So you choose to reveal feelings that will get your basic needs met and suppress the feelings that put you in danger.

Functional Family vs. Dysfunctional Family Characteristics

Functional Family

  • Stable and predictable caregiving environment.
  • Safe and loving space.
  • Emotionally secure caregiver-child relationship.
  • Unconditional love.
  • Caregivers are not afraid of showing their love and vulnerable feelings.
  • Healthy Boundaries.
  • Fostering Autonomy.
  • Healthy communication.
  • A good balance of praising and setting realistic expectations.
  • Family traditions and rituals

Dysfunctional Family

  • Unpredictability 
  • Abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction.
  • Conditional love.
  • Don't talk, don't trust, don't feel.
  • No emotional autonomy.
  • Fear
  • Caregivers have one-sided emotional eruptions. (e.g., anger)
  • Unrealistic expectations and an overly sense of obligation towards your parents
  • Poor or ineffective communication.
  • Excessive criticism and power struggle.

*Not an exhaustive list

Types of Dysfunctional Families

There are many different types of dysfunctional families. Depending on the type of dysfunctional family you have, you may carry different types of problems into adulthood.

1. Addiction and Mental Illness in Dysfunctional Family

This is the type of family where one or more parent/caregiver has an addiction, compulsion, and/or mental illness that influences the entire family. When we think of a typical South Asian family, mental health is not something you may have talked about, let alone mental illness.

Most of our parents did not have the luxury to stop and think about their mental health. Does that excuse their behaviors? Most certainly not. It does, however, allow us to create some space for empathy.

Growing up in a dysfunctional family surrounded by drugs or alcohol can lead to a chaotic and unpredictable upbringing. You may have felt a sense of confusion throughout most of it. This is where I think dysfunction in South Asian families may be different from other families.

When you first question the dysfunction, some of it is so normalized within the entire community that you think you are crazy or not normal.

How does our community handle it?

The way our community handles substance abuse and mental illness is by acting like it's normal, denying it, ignoring it, pretending it does not exist, keeping it a secret, shaming people that struggle with it, and acting like it's not a big deal, in silence, or justifying it. 

It is one thing to socially and occasionally enjoy yourself by drinking. However, when that drinking consistently interferes with your ability to function in your environment, further disrupting others' lives, it starts to get dysfunctional.

The severity of dysfunction also matters. For example, some parents/caregivers might have a drinking or substance use problem causing them to emotionally or physically withdraw from their environment. At the same time, some parents/caregivers might physically, emotionally, verbally, or sexually abuse their family members, engaging in their environment in harmful ways. Some parents/caregivers who cannot show their affection towards their children when sober may do so when intoxicated in a way that may not be age-appropriate. Some families may experience financial hardships.

You may have been in a space where you are constantly worried about your siblings or parents' safety, which made leaving the house impossible. This inconsistency and unpredictability of not knowing which parent/caregiver you may have tonight affect your mental health significantly.

Looking at your generational history, it is evident that most of our parents have some form of undiagnosed mental illness. It becomes problematic when that family member refuses help, and you have to take on the role of a caregiver to meet their needs.

2. Emotionally Detached Dysfunctional Family

In an emotionally detached family, one or both parents/caregivers fail to provide adequate emotional support. Most children of immigrants can attest to this. Your parents/children might have provided all you needed to be successful in life but missed one key ingredient: emotional support. It is uncommon in dysfunctional families to receive hugs, say I love you, or hold hands.

If you have tried to attempt this, you may have noticed it quickly turns awkward. Our parents didn't grow up with emotional support, so their response makes sense. However, this taught you to repress your own emotions. As you got older, you continued to suppress your feelings leading to difficulties sharing how you felt.

Growing up, family dinners, talking about your day, dating life, and doing activities together were probably uncommon. As you show up in your relationships, it may be overwhelming if you are asked to share too much too soon. It just does not feel normal.

You might also tend to overshare as a way to connect with others. Feelings of unworthiness, low self-esteem, and fear of abandonment may be familiar.

Now you may be wondering why this is dysfunctional. Again, it depends on the severity of the dysfunction, and not having emotional support as a child can damage their self-esteem and emotional health. When your emotional needs are consistently denied, ignored, invalidated, or not appreciated- that is emotional neglect.

3. Controlling Dysfunctional Family

Parents/caregivers treat their children as possessions and have strong authoritarian control over them. This is the family where mistakes are not allowed, but high (primarily unrealistic) expectations are placed on their child. Punishments often include hitting, spanking, silent treatment, and/or yelling. Because of this, you may be unable to learn from your mistakes or make decisions on your own.

Parents/caregivers are often found to be the decision-makers for their children in the South Asian community. All significant life choices are made by the parents/caregivers, usually with little regard for their child's wants. This creates resentment, anger, and, more importantly, concerns like depression, anxiety, and substance use as you age.

The classic 'because I said so' is something we have all heard at some point in our life. When you choose to do something against their control, you may have been met with guilt trips, manipulation, chaotic, and/or unpredictable means.

Other unhealthy ways of controlling are constant comparison, excessive criticism, inadequate or ineffective communication, expectations of perfectionism, and conditional love.

4. Abuse, Neglect and Conflict in Dysfunctional Family

This is a family where abuse (physical, emotional, sexual) and neglect (physical and emotional) are prevalent. Witnessing violence in the house or being forced to participate in the violence is also abuse: the constant unpredictability, chaos, and mothers being treated violently all impact your mental health.

There also is a high level of conflict directed towards other family members of the house in the forms of criticism, blaming, shaming, and/or name-calling. Most conversations tend to turn into an argument. If you weren't modeled what healthy conflict looks like, you might think every disagreement/argument has to be this dramatic blow-up.

5. Ultra-Religious Dysfunctional Family

This is an excessively religious family. Their life choices, experiences, and surroundings are all in response to their religious beliefs. The South Asian community is well known for its traditions, rituals, and ideas.

There is nothing wrong with being a religious person. We need religion to keep order and hope alive in society. I do believe that. However, when parents/caregivers, family members, and/or the community use religion to control their children or force them into their beliefs, that is when the dysfunction starts.

This is not an exhaustive list, but I've found that most dysfunctional families can fit into these five categories that we can further expand on depending on the type of dysfunction and severity. Of course, a family can be more than one from this list.

Roles in a Dysfunctional Family

1. The Caretaker

  • Makes excuses for the family
  • Enabler
  • People Pleaser
  • Wants the family to stay together and will try to smooth over the conflicts
  • Taking on the problems that are not theirs to carry
  • In denial about the severity of the dysfunction
  • Tries to fix the dysfunction by self-sacrificing

2. The Scapegoat

  • Usually blamed for the problems in the house
  • Often seen as the problem child and black sheep of the family
  • Internalizes shame and guilt
  • Craves independence and distance from the family
  • Constantly criticized
  • The whistleblower of the family
  • Ignored for speaking the truth about the dysfunction in the house

3. The Hero

  • Takes on a parent role
  • Overachieves
  • Strives for perfectionism
  • Constantly trying to make the family look good-caretaker of the family
  • Often burdened by guilt, shame, and pressure that they will never talk about
  • Tries to normalize the chaos by false hope
  • Successful on the outside, but struggles internally

4. The Lost Child

  • Invisible family member
  • Withdraws as a way to deal with family dysfunction
  • Tries to avoid all conflict and talks about family dysfunction by spending time alone
  • Deny their own needs by burying their feelings of guilt and shame
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Tries their best to not create any problems

5. The Mascot

  • Uses humor as a way to avoid family issues
  • They crave approval
  • They appear as if nothing really bothers them but often burdened with guilt, shame, and fear
  • Constantly busy to avoid facing the dysfunction in the house
  • Usually feels confused and lonely as they continue to avoid feeling pain.

6. The Addict

  • Prime focus and source of the family conflict.
  • No acknowledgement of the problem.
  • Unhealthy ways of coping with stressors.

The Impact of Growing Up In a Dysfunctional Family

Depending on the severity of the dysfunction, you may have some long-lasting effects. Many of you have connected with each other's experiences not because you knew one another but because you had similar survival strategies or understood each other from a cultural perspective. For some, it was therapeutic enough to realize you were not alone, finally.

Some common traits you might be noticing in yourself are:

  • Feelings of guilt and shame
  • Feelings of loss
  • Taking everything personally
  • Addictive habits
  • Anger
  • Getting emotionally flooded easily
  • Codependency
  • Unable to regulate your emotions
  • Having difficulty living a life that is not full of chaos and unpredictability
  • Not having a 'normal'
  • Impulsivity
  • Constantly seeking approval from others
  • Performance anxiety
  • Loss of identity
  • Constantly playing victim card
  • You try to 'fix' people
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Low self-esteem

*Not an exhaustive list

How to Deal With a Dysfunctional Family

The first step towards healing is recognizing you come from a dysfunctional family. This takes incredible courage to do. Children of immigrants may have mixed feelings about their parents/caregivers as they realize their family's sacrifices to ensure a successful future.

 Questioning their ways of doing it may feel like you are abandoning or betraying them. However, reflecting on how your past affects your current and future life is essential.

Ways to Deal With a Dysfunctional Family

  • Spending time around people who are good for your mental health provides a stable environment with consistency in behavior.
  • Physically distance yourself during heated situations. Don't try to explain or make demands for them to change, especially if your safety is in question.
  • Have a routine to keep yourself busy.
  • Setting goals. For example, working towards getting out of the toxic environment.
  • Sleepover at a trusted friend or family member's house if that is an option.
  • Journal out their triggers, actions, and words. Then journal how that made you feel, what words triggered you, why, and how that was not related to you.
  • Have boundaries in place. If boundaries are not respected, reflect on how your boundaries were violated.
  • Find a mental escape: meditation, music, yoga, chai break, art, shower, watch funny videos, call/visit a friend.
  • Find a space in your house that you consider safe. For example, your room or closet. If you can't find the area, substitute it with walking outside or calling a trusted friend/adult/family member.
  • Therapy: Find affordable therapy options like sliding scale therapy, community mental health clinics, therapy apps, local support groups, or crisis hotlines.
  • If you are a student, contact your School Social Worker, School Counselor, Teacher, and/or Coach. They are there to help you.
  • If you live in a home environment with violence or immediate threats of danger, seek help immediately.
  • Have a code word you share with a trusted adult or friend if you are in an unsafe situation and need an alternate option.
  • Find an ACA meeting near you.
  • Create distance between their behavior and your self-worth.
  • Remind yourself- you will get through this.

Journal Prompts to Recognize Your Patterns

  • What are you feeling right now?

  • Identify what triggered the situation driving the emotion.

  • How did you act because of this emotion?

  • Was there a better way of coping with your feelings?

Looking for a journal? Check out our top 3 favorites:

Let's Recap...

Healing means working through those rules and understanding that they no longer serve you. It is important you talk about your experiences in a safe space. Building trust will take time, but when you learn to set boundaries and understand your needs, you will learn to trust again.

Finally, it is important to process ALL of your feelings. This can be terrifying at first since they might have been suppressed for so long. It can be confusing, and you might find yourself labeling emotions according to what is acceptable. This is where journaling, therapy, and talking about your experiences with people you consider safe are important. Read my post on 'The 15 Lessons I Learned Growing Up In A Dysfunctional Family'

Most people that come from a dysfunctional family struggle with the shame, guilt, fear, and loneliness they feel.

It was not your fault. You are enough. You are worthy.

Your family dysfunction does not define who you are; most importantly, you are not alone.

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One Comment

  1. Thank you for providing this safe, educational and inclusive space for those of us who have felt isolated and alone for so long.

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