Dear Barb—Dysfunction Junction

Dear Barb:

I am from a family of three girls and I’m in the middle. Our family has had many issues with drugs, alcohol and abuse. My older sister and I seem to always be arguing and competing over stupid things. We are all on our own now, but it seems the problems still come up when we get together. I am beginning to think our family is dysfunctional, but when I mention that to my sisters, they don’t agree. They feel all families have issues like ours. They accuse me of creating problems. I have briefly talked to my mom just to see how she feels and she also agrees with my sisters and tells me that everything is fine and to stop stirring the pot. Maybe I am looking for issues where there aren’t any, but it just doesn’t seem normal for a family to be in constant turmoil and go for months and even years not talking to each other. What do you think, should I just let it be and accept that this is the way my family is?

Thanks, Emily.

Hi Emily:

You gave a small snapshot of your family, so it’s hard to say whether they are truly dysfunctional, but it does sound like it from my view. I will provide some of the characteristics of a dysfunctional family and you can see if they apply to your situation. You have already mentioned that there were drug and alcohol abuse issues. Substance abuse issues often lead to traumatic experiences and rejection within the family, as well as unhealthy parent-child attachments. Unstable home situations, such as parents who do not come home regularly, or provide food, or care for their children, may cause children to grow up and continue to function in these unhealthy ways as adults and parents. A family with many conditions and expectations, who only give love in return for maintaining a certain grade average, or living up to a particular image, is not a healthy environment. A lack of acceptance within a family, will lead to dysfunctional behaviours and ultimately affect relationships outside of the family.  An important aspect that is often missing in a dysfunctional family is empathy, or the ability to see another’s point of view, which will ultimately lead to misunderstandings between family members.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a dysfunctional family is professionally defined as “a family in which relationships or communication are impaired and members are unable to attain closeness and self-expression.”

It sounds like your family fits into these criteria.  But all is not lost, as there are many ways to deal with dysfunction within a family, beginning with setting boundaries, and at times avoiding certain topics, or even limiting contact.  The healthiest and most successful way to manage family dysfunction is through family therapy, where you can learn healthy ways to deal with these unhealthy family patterns. Even if your family members are reluctant to attend, you can go and learn more positive ways to interact with your family.  Hope this information was helpful Emily.

Email your questions to Some submissions may be edited for length or to protect confidentiality; your real name and location will never be printed. This column is for entertainment only. The author is not a professional counsellor and this column is not intended to take the place of professional advice.
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