Do you wish for a family that’s different from what you have? Do you dream about going far away just to escape your family drama? Or, do you feel caged because you can’t be you? If yes, then the signs are you are living in a dysfunctional family!
So, how to cope with a dysfunctional family?

Well, no family is perfect. Every family goes through a plethora of problems daily. Every family experiences conflicts which end up in a fight. However, it is not the conflicts that a family goes through but the ability to resolve those conflicts in a healthy way that makes the difference. In a dysfunctional family, the focus shifts from conflict resolution to ego pleasing. That’s when parents instead of becoming a source of support to their children becomes a root of transferring unhealthy coping mechanisms to them and the cycle continues.

For some, the thought of family being a source of pain and hurt can be quite unfathomable. That’s okay too because no one goes through the same family trauma as members of a dysfunctional family do. Nonetheless, dysfunctional family units are very much a reality regardless of how people react. So, for those of you who are living in a dysfunctional family, I am here to share 9 life-changing ways of coping with a dysfunctional family setup.  But, before that let’s know what a dysfunctional family is. To better understand the crux of the problem. So, let’s get started!

What is a dysfunctional family?

A dysfunctional family thrives on toxicity. It is woven with conflict and unnecessary drama. While no parents are perfect, in a dysfunctional family unit they are far from being normal even. One unique characteristic that bounds every couple in a dysfunctional unit is that they serve their egos rather than thinking about their relationship as a whole.

While conflicts are a part of every relationship, a dysfunctional family, in particular, revolves around conflict. However, it is not the conflict but the abuse and misbehavior that are associated with every conflict. According to Mental Health America, a dysfunctional family has the following characteristics;

a- Perfectionism

While partners demand perfection from each other in a dysfunctional family, they also direct this ideation toward their children. Having the constant pressure of living up to your parents’ expectations damages your mental health immensely.

b- Violence

Be it domestic violence or emotional or sexual abuse, a dysfunctional family unit is violent whenever a conflict arises.

c- Neglect

Neglecting your child’s needs or withholding love is also a sign of a dysfunctional family unit.

d- Fear and unpredictability

There is always fear or uncertainty regarding your parents’ reaction. Often a child may even give up on his dreams for fear of outrage from his parents.

e- Conditional love

In a dysfunctional family unit, parents’ love is not unconditional. Rather, their conditioned love compels you to constantly please them thereby giving up on what you want.

f- Poor communication

There is no concept of understanding and respecting each other’s thoughts and opinions.

g- Lack of boundaries

There is no concept of boundaries giving rise to unhealthy codependent relationships to the point when you can no longer take your life’s decisions later.

10 tips for surviving in a dysfunctional family

1- Try setting boundaries

While it will be hard to live in a dysfunctional family, some ways will help you in surviving the odds. One way of surviving in a dysfunctional family is by limiting your interactions with those problematic family members. Not to say that it is an easy task either because sometimes it will be difficult to find an escape route when these members have authority i.e. your parents.

However, you should know how to assert yourself and your boundaries respectfully to your parents as well. For this firstly you have to make them realize when they cross the boundary. If your father is being overly critical of your grades then let him know that you did your best instead of just sitting quietly.

Make your efforts known to them. Make them realize that no matter how much hard work you put into something the results are never in your hands. Also, you don’t need to justify yourself rather just say it without sounding like you are up for a debate.

If your mother tends to be too critical of your dress choices then let her know that you like what you wear. Explain that you won’t change your dress choices because you feel comfortable wearing these clothes. Also, try using I statements when setting your boundaries. This tactic shifts the focus on you, rather than giving off the impression that you are annoyed with the intrusion of your parents and thereby complaining.

Related; 7 strong relationship tips

2- Avoid topics that can spark conflict

Living in a dysfunctional family is like a walk on a tightrope. You constantly have to watch your step, maintain balance and keep your focus intact. Similarly to cope with a dysfunctional family, you have to first observe the patterns that spark conflict and then steer away from it.

There may be some topics that you need to avoid while talking to your parents. If you have controlling or intimidating parents then you need to never bring up those specific topics while interacting with them. It can be something like asking them for a night out with your friends. If your parents are always like ‘be home at 9 pm sharp!’ then, asking them for a night out will land you in hot waters.

Also, if your mother is skeptical about your one particular friend then you should never talk about him to your mother. It’s obvious that when a person doesn’t like someone you should never bring them up in a conversation with that person, let alone in front of your controlling parents.

All in all, you have to observe the patterns first and then try avoiding bringing those up. This way the drama and conflict will considerably reduce.

3- Discuss but don’t blame

Coming from a dysfunctional family it becomes hard to assert yourself and state your needs without sounding accusatory. You may be right about your feelings. You might feel hurt, anger, or pain regarding something your family did. However, it is the choice of words that can make the real difference here. Even if not at that moment your dysfunctional family members are sure to ponder over your words sometime later.

So, firstly start using the word ‘I’ instead of starting with you or them. When you use I in your statements you are putting your emotions across the table without blaming anyone. For example, your mother tends to have problems with you being overweight. She sometimes becomes too rude and starts ridiculing you for it.

Instead of saying something like,’ Your statements are very harsh at times’ try saying ‘I feel hurt when you are insensitive about my weight although I am working hard on losing the extra pounds, yet something’s aren’t just in our control.’ This helps a lot in making the dysfunctional family member realize how you are affected by their actions and words.

Thus, to cope with a dysfunctional family you need to start adequately discussing your feelings. Also, never try this technique when you or the other person are angry. That will only make the situation more hostile for you. Rather, look for when things cool down and then go for a discussion.

Related; Effective communication skills

4- Accept that some people won’t change

Sometimes despite your utmost efforts, people don’t mend their ways. In a dysfunctional family setup, conflicts become the norm. Parents who exhibit problematic behaviors are the ones who grew up watching and experiencing these behaviors.

Even though they might have sworn off not following the same parenting style, they end up being exactly like that. Because it gets ingrained in the subconscious mind. So, no matter how much you try to convince them otherwise. Or assert yourself you can’t bring about change unless they decide it themselves.

Thus, accept the fact that people don’t change unless they want the change themselves. In such situations try accepting them as they are. Raising children suggests that acceptance creates a positive family environment.

So, if your mother doesn’t express her love for you but is quick to scold you, then make peace with how she is. Mostly, our problem multiplies because we deny it. However, once you start seeing things as they are and make peace with them then you no longer feel the same pain.

So, although coping with a dysfunctional family is hard yet you need to realize when to put an end to all your efforts. Sometimes all you need to do is leave certain situations. Or, accept them as they are.

Related; 4 Reasons that cause a change in a person

5- Practice self-compassion

There is so much tension in a dysfunctional family that you end up not focusing on yourself. Your focus shifts from enjoying life to surviving it. This tells upon your overall health.

So while your friends may be insisting on you for a hang out all on your mind is how you would ask for permission from your parents. In the end, refusing your friends with any lame excuse is far easier than going through the whole permission ordeal.

However, ignoring yourself and your happiness can be disastrous in the longer run. Instead to ease your mind of all the family drama you need to focus more on yourself. A study published by the University of Texas on self-compassion also proves that when you are mindful of your sufferings and compassionate towards yourself then you are better able to cope with the stressors of life.

While Harvard Medical School says that people who practice self-compassion experience lower levels of anxiety and depression. This is something that you need immensely because the constant pressure of living in a dysfunctional family takes a toll on your mental health immensely.

So, put your health, well-being, and happiness first. Go out with your friends no matter how many justifications you have to give to convince your parents. Make sure you prioritize yourself and do whatever you need for your happiness. Treat yourself once in a while. Go for a vacation.

Let your mind wander a bit for coping with a dysfunctional family. By doing this you would realize that the family drama doesn’t affect you to that extent anymore.

Related; A Step By Step Guide to your Self-Love Journey

6- Offer empathy

Sometimes when someone hurts you your instant reaction is to pay them back in the same coin. Tit for tat might satisfy your ego for a while. You may feel liberated from all the family drama. However, to understand, accept and assert yourself in a dysfunctional family you need to see your family members through an empathetic lens.

You need to realize that dysfunction runs in families. Anyone belonging to a dysfunctional family would somehow practice those toxic traits with their own family as well.

No matter how much a child swears by not following the same path of toxicity they somehow end up exhibiting those same traits. Because patterns get ingrained in our minds subconsciously. So, they need to be dealt with empathy rather than hostility.

Empathy makes us see the world through the other person’s perspective. It makes us aware of their emotions and thoughts.

If you have had strained relations with your mother then chances are that she also didn’t enjoy cordial relations with her mother. A person who belongs to a family where displaying affection is not a norm, then probably would follow the same path as their own family as well.

So, try understanding the emotions of your dysfunctional family members. By doing this you will observe an improved relationship quality. For this, you will have to look into any past experiences to know why they are the way they are. Once you start doing this you’ll start having a soft spot for them. You’ll understand the pain behind their anger. In coping with a dysfunctional family empathy does work wonders!

Related; 10 ways to build emotional maturity

7- Refrain from comparing your family to others

No family is perfect. Every family goes through its fair share of conflicts. Though on the surface your friend’s family might seem too perfect to you. You might even assume them not having any conflict at all. However, this is not the reality.

The reality is that people hurt each other when they interact. Either intentionally or unintentionally. You need to realize that dysfunction happens in every family. Although the frequency of dysfunction in your family might be higher than in your neighbor next door.

But, dysfunction is a part of every family. Members of a family fight. They hurt each other. Although they don’t direct this anger towards their children yet the children gets affected by the conflicts between their parents because they love their parents. Seeing the pain on their parents’ faces affects them the most.

Mostly, even more than the parents involved in the conflict. However, as you grow up you realize that every family has conflicts.

A better approach would be to stop looking left and right when it comes to your family. Stop comparing your family with someone else’s. Just as families are different so are the problems that every family faces. Rather understand that no one is perfect. And when no person is perfect then no family can be perfect either.

8- Feel your emotions

In a dysfunctional family, you would seldom feel the need to vent out your emotions. But, the already constant drama would hold you back from doing so. Regardless, you should never suppress your emotions. You are allowed to feel anger, frustration, or pain because you are human.

Feel your emotions rather than suppressing them. If you are angry then stop forcing a smile on your face. Rather get in touch with your emotions. Not to say that you get violent but at least acknowledge your emotions.

Acknowledging your emotions is healthy rather than being a stranger to them. Because you have a right to feel respected and if someone violates that right then you should have the audacity to assert yourself also. Though people might advise you to forgive and let go. However, forgiveness should be the last step when coping with a dysfunctional family.

So, allow yourself to feel angry. Express your emotions. if you cannot express your emotions directly to that person, you can make these emotions visible through your body language. Try having your dinner in your room rather than having it with everyone. Stop being friends with that particular family member for a while. Once you recognize the power of your emotions and how they can compel others to mend their ways you would never suppress them again in the future.

Related; 10 Ways to Help You Let Go of Anger and Hurt

9- Seek help

If nothing works then you might consider seeking a therapist. When it’s hard for you to handle the emotional distress that comes with living in a dysfunctional family then professional therapy can be the best option. A mental health professional will help you deal with all the trauma that you have experienced.

They will help you identify and regulate your emotions. Most of all, the words of a therapist will make you feel strong thereby motivating you to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Because life will not always be the same. Times will change and a therapist is the best option for you when nothing else helps.

You can also talk to your friends or engage with any support group if you can’t access a therapist. It’s all about venting your emotions and feeling light at heart. So, just do what works best for you. But, never feel that you are alone!


Living in a dysfunctional family can take a toll on your physical and mental health immensely. It might ruin your personality and you may have difficulty forming relationships later in life. But, remember there’s nothing that can’t be fixed. You only need to take the right steps in the right direction.

If you act on these 9 simple yet effective tips to cope with a dysfunctional family you’ll well be on your way to healing from the trauma. So, act on these 9 ways earnestly and you’ll surely be able to survive a dysfunctional family.

About the Author

Sara Khan

Sara Khan is a writer, fashion designer, and entrepreneur. She aims to inspire and motivate people to live, love, and laugh wholeheartedly.

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