How a Functional Family Might Look


Some essential information for us ladies. From Susan Jane Smith from the UK.



“So I come from a dysfunctional family system – how do I create a functional family now that I am married and am planning to have children of my own?”

family1Firstly, I would say that you need to work on your own life issues and ensure that you have good self-esteem, good communication skills, good anger management and stress management skills and like yourself! Your partner needs these too! Go to counselling/psychotherapy if you lack the skills above.


Functional parents:

  • • do not lie to anyone
  • • do not tell their children that they are worthless
  • • do not call their children insulting names
  • • do not use physical pain to enforce their point of view
  • • do not get drunk
  • • do not use street drugs
  • • have no need for pornography
  • • do not use money or gifts as bribes for desired behavior
  • • do not use guilt to manipulate anyone


Sounds impossible? It isn’t – it’s just not what you will have learned growing up in a less functional home.


See my chapter ‘Quality of Life: A Blueprint for Change’ in my book:

Emotional Health for Emotional Wealth.


Many clients walk in saying they are the black sheep of their family because they have been used as a scapegoat for the problems of the family system. We go over examples of what has happened and their self-esteem starts to rise when they can see it was not all their fault! They are so used to being blamed as the bad one that they believe it. Frequently, they were depressed teenagers who acted out.   That depression came from being hit as a child and being so angry (not expressed directly at their parents) that they were self-destructive and got into drugs or alcohol to excess, promiscuity, et cetera – no sense of self-worth. No boundaries or respect taught because their parents had such low self- esteem themselves and were addicting to work, affairs, alcohol, et cetera. No nurturing time spent with the kids. Throw in one or two divorces or relationship breakdowns and how could a child grow up in a healthy, self-nurturing way – no road map to follow.


If they make it into a therapists’ office they are starting to break a generational cycle. Well done!


When I was studying for a master’s degree in community psychology, I came across the concept of dysfunctional families. Until then I didn’t know that I had been brought up in one! Sure enough I had. A bit of a shock to me at that time and it is a label that still tends to make people feel uncomfortable. The trouble with dysfunctional families is that a characteristic is to breed loyalty – even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it isn’t deserved.

Thus, to try to tell someone suffering from that kind of loyalty that it is undeserved and toxic is painful for them! Even if that is the best bit of news they really could have. What it does, once you get your head around it, is to set you free from believing that it was all your fault or that what parents (and sometimes siblings) have said is that it was you who was the odd one out for questioning what was going on! Freedom at last! Do read ‘Toxic Parents’ by Susan Forward Ph.D. to get rid of any rubbish from your past.


My initial learning about dysfunctional family systems came from the wonderful work done in the U.S.A. about the families of alcoholics. The concept of being an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (A.C.O.A.) is a real step forward. See my chapter ‘My Drinking Isn’t A Problem’ in my book Emotional Health for Emotional Wealth.


I then realized that you could be what I have called A.C.D.F.S. – Adult Child of a Dysfunctional Family System because lots of other situations also make a family not function well. These could be addictions like gambling, drugs or workaholism! Yes, over working is an addiction too. It could equally show up when there is incest, an eating disorder, a depressed or seriously ill parent. You may well recognize other situations!


There are different types and degrees of family dysfunction – some families may be outwardly focused as when the members are involved in criminal activity. There is still dysfunction if a family is overly inwardly focused – there can be a need for the children to be compliant and not express any negative emotions. There may be sex role stereotyping. Parents may also not be good at pulling together and are inadequate in themselves. Children may be deprived of their individual identities. Children may learn to expect disappointment as the adults in their lives are inconsistent in what they do and say.


I have decided to try to describe a useful, more functional model or people to aspire towards! These are my views and you will need to do more reading for yourself to learn to choose for yourself what you would want for your family.


My functional family would have positive responses to these questions:

  • Do I feel that my family demonstrates loving behavior?
  • Do my family members trust each other?
  • Is there open and honest communication between all members of my family?
  • Does my family avoid keeping secrets?
  • Does my family show affection openly and often?
  • Do we have laughter and fun at home?
  • Do all the members of the family get the respect of other family members?
  • Do my parents have the ability to differentiate between the needs and wants of the individual family members?
  • Do we all listen to each other and acknowledge the viewpoint even if we don’t agree?
  • Are we able to adapt and be flexible in dealing with situations – especially creating age-appropriate behaviour as the children get older?
  • Do we all have a clear understanding of the boundaries of acceptable behaviours?
  • Do we honour the limits set?
  • Is there an appreciation of individuality and differences?
  • Do we have an enjoyment of each other’s company?
  • Do we demonstrate the ability to forgive and show mercy without accepting repetitive bad behaviour?
  • Do we all feel safe with each other and within our home?
  • Is seeing projects through to completion role modelled by the adults so that children can learn this?
  • Do we all feel non-judgemental – able to separate out unproductive behaviour to be corrected rather than just the transgressor as a bad person?
  • Is there provision of approval and praise to reinforce appropriate useful behaviour?
  • Do we teach our children to look ahead at the potential outcomes of their behaviours?
  • Do we encourage occasional spontaneity rather than consistent impulsivity?
  • Do we recognise the accomplishments of all the members of the family?
  • Are mistakes or failures seen as learning?


Here are some questions that might allow you to look at your own life and see if you have been affected by a dysfunctional family system so  that  you know you  need to go to counselling/psychotherapy to make changes:

  • Do you fear criticism? (No one likes it – fearing it drives people towards trying to be perfect and put themselves and people around them under inordinate strain).
  • Do you over-extend yourself? (Do you have trouble saying “no” either in a work situation, to friends who ask for ‘favours’ or to family members?)
  • Do you actually seek crisis situations? (Are you more comfortable in a perverse kind of way when there are emergencies to be handled?)
  • Do you subconsciously create crisis either by choosing partners who cannot commit, violent people to be in your life, alcoholics or people with other addictive or unhealthy patterns?
  • Do you over-spend so that you keep yourself stressed, self-abused and struggling to fix the emergency?


A child’s sense of self- worth is something they develop as a result of their parents’ (and other influential carers) attitudes towards them. Please do think about the words you use when you speak to children.


A child needs:

  • To be taught ways of coping with everyday problems
  • To be trusted
  • To be appreciatedfamily-girl
  • To be told in words that they are loved
  • To be told in words that they are valued
  • Their every minor accomplishment praised
  • Parents need to speak with and listen to their children (and not just talk at them or give them ‘orders’)
  • Hugs and kisses (with no sexual overtone)
  • Notice your child’s strengths and reinforce them with positive comments
  • Thank them for doing chores
  • Explain what needed to be different not just criticize when the child gets something ‘wrong’
  • Give compliments for ‘good’ behaviour
  • Give compliments for being ‘well turned out’, etcetera.
  • Remember to praise all of the children not just a ‘favorite’.
  • Stability and consistency creates secure children. Yes, love is important and it is important to tell a child in words they are loved.


The reason I believe ‘roots’ are vital is because of reflecting on my own experience. I had the consistency of my parents being married for over 40 years which was only terminated by my father’s death. I had the consistency of an extended family. I also crossed the Atlantic Ocean 35 times by the time I was 16 years old and that was not for holidays! My mum married an American GI at the end of World War II and emigrated to the U.S.A. She was terribly homesick. In her 70’s she told me she had wanted her parents to stop her from marrying and leaving home – they didn’t as they thought this was what she wanted! Such poor communication skills within the family! My mum’s homesickness was exacerbated by her mother’s dying and my mum always felt (unrealistically) that if she had been at home with her parents she could have prevented that death.

My mum lived with unresolved grief and depression for over 40 years as a result. This culminated in unstable family5behaviour on her part and an unstable childhood for me. I understand it all now – as a youngster it was just confusing. Please think about the impact of your behaviour on your family! My father’s behaviour is covered in the first chapter of my book Emotional Health for Emotional Wealth.


My parents both loved me – they were just so inadequate as individuals and they were parentally dysfunctional without even knowing it. Most people never knew about such things back then and that needs to change for the future.


Children who are moved around a lot for whatever reason (job change, marital breakdown, parents who are in the military, having a parent who is a diplomat) can have a lot of anxiety at being in new situations and then having to say goodbye to friends yet again. It can make it difficult to settle down in one place when they grow up and thus make it difficult for them to give their own children roots and a stable environment. If your family has been in this situation does it have a clown, are the kids acting out or are they withdrawn?

Recognize anyone? Seek counseling for them, please!


Functional families display feelings, not stiff upper lips, because that denies a child’s reality. The child instinctively senses if you are sad and then if you say that you are not you create confusion and self-doubt and that makes it difficult for the child to trust itself.

Trust in life means trusting yourself deep down inside so that you know you can handle it even if you meet with disappointment, betrayal or hurt.


Appropriate action when disagreement occurs is for an apology and for forgiveness. Faulty learning is where there family6is hurt and defensive anger in response to a complaint. Under that is a feeling of rejection and injustice and withdrawal creates unresolved conflict.

Just more buried pain as the pattern repeats itself. Functional families work to resolve conflicts.


Whatever your family of origin (single parent, reformed, or with both original parents being together forever) it is the place where you became the person you are – unique with your own identity.

Functional families honor and foster that individuality. It is a social unit that makes it safe for its inhabitants to experiment and find out who they are and what they want from life.


Previous article:  Susan Jane Smith

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Susan Jane Smith, B.SC

Counseling in the Forest Publishing


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