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The Dysfunctional Family

Chapter 2: The Dysfunctional Family
Laying the Foundation:

Personality Traits of Low Self-Esteem
By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.


What are some common characteristics of dysfunctional families?

Common characteristics include where:

  • Love is not given unconditionally but is given based on performance or other conditions
  • Love is earned rather than freely given
  • People are loved not for who they are but for what they do
  • Positive emotions and feelings are not freely and openly expressed
  • Problems and troubles in the family are not freely and openly discussed or explored
  • The member's self-esteem, self-worth and self-concepts are neither freely supported nor reinforced
  • Family members are caught up in maintaining a “public image'' of the family for others to see: that of a whole, healthy, functioning family
  • The members have to work hard to get acceptance from each other
  • Sadness, unhappiness, depression, discouragement, dissatisfaction, apathy, and anger are not freely expressed but are often experienced
  • Open and honest communication is rare or never experienced
  • Family members experience a great deal of personal hurt and suffering and are not able to deal with it openly; or they often mask it so well that they deny the feelings entirely
  • Family members fear failure and have a tendency to be perfectionistic
  • Family members must jockey for one another's' approval
  • Family members are encouraged to sacrifice and contribute their energies for some “big pay-off'' in the future, which may never be experienced

What are some conditions in which families can become dysfunctional?

  • One or more family members is alcoholic or dependent on drugs
  • One or more family members is addicted to food, gambling, sex, or to some other form of dependent behavior
  • A child with a developmental disability is born into the family
  • One or more family member is materialistic and values”things” to the exclusion of “persons”
  • One or more family member is suffering from a mental illness
  • A major disaster befalls the family: death of a parent or child; home destroyed either due to act of God or of man; a family member is murdered, raped, or is critically injured; a major accident result in permanent disability or death; severe financial problems, e.g., bankruptcy, long periods of unemployment, poverty
  • One or more family member is a physical, emotional, or sexual abuser of the other(s)
  • The family is forced into a “single parent” model due to divorce, death or the excessive travelling of a spouse
  • One or more family members is rigid in the expression of feelings or emotions with the other(s)
  • One or more family members is incapable of displaying physical affection openly to the other(s)
  • One or more family members is incapable of developing an intimate relationship with the other(s)
  • One or more family members is a workaholic
  • A major illness befalls a family member, resulting in permanent disability or chronic illness

What are some negative consequences of being reared in a dysfunctional family?

Being reared in a dysfunctional family can result in:

  • low self-esteem
  • irrational beliefs
  • disabling guilt
  • an inability to trust others
  • a sense of personal insecurity
  • a fear of being vulnerable
  • an inability to take risks
  • fear of failure
  • fear of success
  • an inability to let go
  • an inability to have fun and play
  • immobilizing fears
  • an inability to manage stress
  • an inability to accept personal responsibility
  • problems with denial
  • unresolved anger
  • problems handling the despair of loss
  • problems accepting change
  • problems in interpersonal relationships
  • problems in handling conflict
  • problems in problem solving
  • fear of rejection
  • an insatiable need for approval
  • an inability to be assertive
  • a problem being victim and/or martyr
  • problems with power and control issues
  • problems with intimacy
  • problems with competition
  • an inability to forgive and forget
  • a tendency to develop an over-active fantasy life
  • problems in communication
  • compulsive behavior, e.g. perfectionist, very orderly, meticulous, inflexible

What are some of the common behavioral roles in dysfunctional families?There are three seminal works on dysfunctional families that discuss a variety of roles in these families. The books are Peoplemaking by Virginia Satir (1972, Science and Behavior Books, Inc.); Another Chance: Hope and Health for the Alcoholic Family by Sharon Wegschieder-Cruse (1981, Science and Behavior Books, Inc.) and It will Never Happen to Me by Claudia Black (1981, MAC Publications). Following are descriptions of the nine behavioral patterns most commonly occurring in dysfunctional families. It will be noted which of the roles were identified by the original authors as being related to these behavioral patterns. All persons in a dysfunctional family have the potential for the nine behavioral patterns. Due to their response to stress in the family, one or more of these patterns can emerge as dominant. The dominant pattern can change at any time, however, depending on the status of the family and their functioning within it. These patterns are behavioral scripts carried by the members of the family for perhaps their entire lives. When they establish families of their own, they can hand down these behavioral patterns, thus incurring cross-generational transmission of these roles and characteristics. 


The nine behavioral patterns in dysfunctional families are:


1. Looking-good: an over-responsible pattern of high achievement and denial of family problems. It contains the elements of the hero of Wegscheider-Cruse, the responsible one and placator of Black, and the placator of Satir.


2. Acting-out: an irresponsible pattern of low achievement and much trouble making that diverts attention from the troubles in the family. It contains the elements of the scapegoat of Wegscheider-Cruse, the acting-out child of Black, and the distractor and blamer of Satir.


3. Pulling-in: the withdrawn behavioral pattern of a loner who resorts to a low profile to hold in emotions in order to survive in the high-stress family. It contains the elements of the lost child of Wegscheider-Cruse, the adjuster of Black, and the computer of Satir.


4. Entertaining: a diversionary pattern of drawing attention away by clowning, amusing, hyperactivity, or ill health. It contains the elements of the mascot of Wegscheider-Cruse, the acting-out child of Black, and the distractor of Satir.


5. Troubled Person: an irresponsible pattern of problem behavior, often the cause and focus of great stress in the family. It contains the elements of the lost person and dependent of Wegscheider-Cruse, the alcoholic or dependent of Black, and blamer of Satir.  


6. Enabling: an over-responsible pattern of protecting, assisting, and cajoling the troubled person so as to reduce the stress in the family. It contains the elements of the enabler of Wegscheider-Cruse, the non-alcoholic spouse of Black, and the placator and blamer of Satir.


7. Rescuing: an over-responsible pattern of helping others in the family so as to reduce the tension, anxiety, hurt, and pain. It contains the elements of the hero and enabler of Wegscheider-Cruse, the placator of Black, and the placator of Satir.


8. People Pleasing: an over-responsible, approval-seeking pattern characterized by excessive social appropriateness and immobilized decision making. It contains the elements of the hero of Wegscheider-Cruse, the responsible one and placator of Black, and the placator of Satir.


9. Nonfeeling: a non-emotive, stoic pattern of denial of problems and feelings that assists an individual in surviving the high stress family. This pattern is related to the concept of Alexathemia, which is the absence of feeling or emotionally laden vocabulary or experience. This pattern contains elements of the lost child and hero of Wegscheider-Cruse, the adjustor of Black, and the computer of Satir.

What are some of the common rules in a dysfunctional family?

First, each family member should feel guilt:

Behavior Pattern    Feels Guilty About

Looking-good          not doing enough or being “good enough'' to make things better in the family

Acting-out               the bad things they do that get them into trouble

Pulling-In                 not being acceptable to the other members of the family

Entertaining             not providing enough relief to the family

Enabling                  not being able to solve the problems in the family

Troubled Person      the problems they have that cause the others grief and pain

Rescuing                 not being able to help enough to save others from pain and hurt

People-pleasing       not being “good enough'' to make other people happy

Nonfeeling               not being able to feel or to express feelings


Other rules include:

  • Every family member should experience anger but should stifle it or stuff it in.
  • Every family member should have low self-esteem.
  • Every family member should feel insecure, uncomfortable, and off balance.
  • There should be incomplete, unsatisfactory, poor communication between family members.
  • Honesty and candor should be stifled for the sake of peace and harmony in the family.
  • Everyone should always be on guard, and they should always prove their worth to each other.
  • No one should be given acceptance unconditionally. They should only receive acceptance and love based on meeting specific conditions or expectations.
  • No one is allowed to give up their expected or anticipated role or behavioral pattern they have adopted in the family.
  • Do not say anything to anyone else unless it is nice, pleasant, and non-confrontational.
  • Avoid conflicts at all costs; lie if you must to avoid conflicts.
  • Every family member should stifle, control, and keep their feelings to themselves.
  • Adults are the only ones who know anything; the input of children is useless.
  • Do not change anything in the family, the goal of the family is to maintain the status quo.
  • There are taboo topics never to be discussed in this family. These topics include sex, drugs, alcohol, birth control, quarreling between the parents, and the excessive or compulsive behavior of individual family members.
  • Someone has to feel like a winner after any disagreement, argument, or fight; there should never be a complete resolution of these events.
  • No one has permission to grow or change in this family.
  • The outside world should see this family only as the “perfect, all American'' family.
  • There is no need to hold back physical or emotional punishment if someone has done wrong. All wrong doers deserve to be punished.
  • Each family member plays an expected role in the family; this provides the family with some sense and order.

What are some common feelings experienced in a dysfunctional family?





lack of acceptance


lack of support


being blamed


being put down

lack of success

being appeased


being ignored


being scolded

uncared for

being victimized


being inadequate








fear of conflict


hungry for attention


indifference toward others


off balance


How can we experience what dysfunctional family life is like?
Here is an activity you can do with your friends or support group that will allow you all to experience dysfunctional family feelings. Try this role-playing activity whenever you or one of your friends or support group members needs to see a three-dimensional reproduction of a dysfunctional family. This can give the insight needed for change in behavior, feelings, and attitudes in order to pursue healthier behavior and to “make it” in your current life.
Family Role-Play Activity
Choose different people to play the role of each member of your family.
  • Tell each player their name, what relationship they are to you (e.g., father, mother, brother, sister, etc.) and what role or attitude they brought to the family using the roles for family role playing.
  • Choose people to play the “sick” behavior, dead or absent people, responsibilities, or other relevant issues in the family.
  • Ask each of the players to assume a position that is appropriate to their role.
  • Ask them to hold the positions for about five minutes, and then ask each one of them how it feels to be in that role.
  • Now ask them to re-enact a specific time in your life that you remember graphically and that seems to lie at the basis of a current feeling of pain or hurt.
  • As this aspect of your life is re-enacted, tune into your feelings. With the help of your group, try to figure out what those feelings tell you and what you need to work on to attain healthy life.


It is useful to have a professional mental health counselor lead this role-playing activity so that all involved can obtain the optimal benefit from the experience.

Roles for Family Role Playing


Role: Looking good or rescuing or people-pleasing: keeps the other person from getting mad, hurt, angry, etc. Always agrees with others, says yes to everything

Non-verbal Script: Get down on one knee and put one arm up, raised in supplication, and the other arm crossed over your heart. Feel wobbly. Be sure your head is up high enough so your neck is stretched back.


Role: Troubled person or enabling: Fault finding, acting superior, a dictator, a boss, being disagreeable.

Non-verbal Script: Point your finger accusingly with arm outstretched. Hold the other arm behind you. Have one foot forward so that your body is in an “attack'' position.


Role: Nonfeeling or pulling-in: ultra-reasonable, always very correct, showing no feelings. Always calm, cool and collected. Their goal is to never make a mistake.

Non-verbal Script :Keep everything about you as motionless as possible. Try hard to keep perfectly stiff and tight. Straighten up your back and stand erect. Head and chin up. Look perfect!


Role: Entertaining or acting-out: does or says things that are irrelevant.

Non-verbal Script: Act like a lopsided top. Keep busy moving your body, arms and legs. Let your body go in different directions.


Role: Noncommunicator

Non-verbal Script: Back to back with person who is speaking. Fold your arms across your chest.


Role: Authoritarian

Non-verbal Script: Remain standing, arms folded, while person who is talking with them is either kneeling or is physically below them.


Role: Child-like perspective

Non-verbal Script: Kneel on floor, looking at world from this height. Hold arms up in order to make a request from any adult.


Role: Indifference or rejection

Non-verbal Script: Look over the person's shoulder with whom you are communicating breaking eye contact.


Role: Attention seeking

Non-verbal Script: Tug at shirt or arm of person from whom you are seeking attention.


Role: Acceptance

Non-verbal Script: Get at eye level, and sustain eye contact with person with whom you are speaking. If the other person is a child, use a chair or squat down in order to remain at eye level.


Role: Nonlistener

Non-verbal Script: Put your hands over your ears.


Role: Person with a “sick” behavior

Non-verbal Script: Place someone behind this person who hangs on the back, representing the sick behavior that that person carries.


Role: Victim

Non-verbal Script: Kneel, hang head down, focus eyes on ground


Role: Responsibility

Non-verbal Script: Have a different person represent each thing for which a person feels responsible or obligated. Hang each person onto that person by holding on to an arm, hand, leg, neck, shoulder, or foot


Role: Dead, missing or divorced person

Non-verbal Script: Have a person hang on the back of another person upon whom the missing person's influence is still at work.


Role: Close-knit family members

Non-verbal Script: Form tightly knit circle, linking arms together.


Role: Distance between family members

Non-verbal Script: Stand at least six feet or more away from each other.


Role: Supportive

Non-verbal Script: Put hand on shoulder of person(s) being supported.


Role: Mask

Non-verbal Script: Smile a big cheshire cat smile. Look happy no matter what happens in family!

How to identify the dysfunctional elements of your family of origin?

Supply the following information for yourself on a separate sheet of paper:


  • Father's name and age he married mom
  • Mother's name and age she married dad
  • Brothers' names and birth dates
  • Sisters' names and birth dates
  • Names and birth dates of any relatives who lived with your family of origin
  • Date parents married
  • Date parents divorced (if they did)
  • Date parent(s) died (if they did)
  • What parent(s) died of
  • Age parent(s) died
  • Date parent(s) remarried (if they did)
  • Names of stepparent(s) (if they exist)


List the following information for each of your family members:

  • What “sick'' unhealthy, or maladaptive behavior they had or currently have
  • What “roles" they played in the family
  • How they appeared to the world
  • What physical characteristics made them stand out in your family
  • What physical illnesses or conditions each family member may have
  • If any family members have died, when did they and why did they die?


For the list of you and your siblings identify:

  • educational accomplishments
  • work history and current career status
  • marital history and current family make up


List which characteristics of high-stress families were true for your family of origin.


List which conditions of high stress existed in your family.


List the negative consequences or unproductive behavior each of your family members experienced from living in your family.


List what rules of high-stress families were true for your family of origin. 


List how each family member handled guilt.


List the hidden feelings each family member was most likely experiencing in your family of origin.


List those feelings that:
  • you experienced in your family of origin when you lived in it
  • you experience when you return “home'' to visit with your family of origin
  • you are currently experiencing as you work on this exercise.


List which of your current problem behavior traits you believe are the result of being reared in your dysfunctional family. 


List which of your current problem behavior traits are also current problem-behavior traits for your parents and siblings. 


List the signs of the need for help for you and your family members in order to redirect your lives to better health. 


Compare your family of origin with the families of origin of your father and mother. List the similarities of dysfunctional elements shared by these three families. 


Compare your family of origin with your current nuclear family. List the similarities of dysfunctional elements shared by your two families. 


Compare your family of origin with the family of origin of your current spouse (if you are married) or with the family of origin of your former spouse(s). List the similarities of dysfunction shared by your family of origin, current family, and the family of your spouse(s). 


Look at your spouse (current or former) and list the dysfunctional elements that the spouse brought to your relationship. Compare them to the dysfunctional elements you brought to the relationship. What was it about your spouse(s) that attracted you? How aware were you both of the dysfunctional elements in both of your backgrounds before getting involved with each other? How would knowing this information have influenced your decision to get involved? How did your individual backgrounds influence your relationship together? 


What age were you when you first realized there were problems:

  • in your family of origin
  • in your marital relationship
  • in your current family?
  • What were the signs of trouble?
  • How did you deal or cope with the problem?
  • What problems are still causing you stress and trouble today?

The next nine chapters deal with each of the behavioral characteristics of dysfunctional families listed in Section IV. As you read and learn more about them, you will learn how to handle the old behavior scripts when they create problems for you today.