Using "dysfunctional family" to understand family dynamics
March 27, 2014 3:27 PM   Subscribe

In reading about codependency I came upon the Wikipedia page for "dysfunctional family." Where does this term come from and who uses it?

What I read on Wikipedia helps me, but the references on that Wikipedia page don't really lead anywhere firm. Google was not of much help. So I am wondering what's the deal? Is this a new concept, a problematic one, or a commercial one? Am I being groomed for Scientology? [mild joke at my own expense]

So I'd like to learn how "dysfunctional family" figures in professional practice, and whether there an alternative term I should be looking for.


-- I examined the first 20 or so hits on google in depth.

-- I'm not asking for advice on whether to consult a doctor or therapist.

-- I'm not trying to do therapy on myself.

-- I should also say that 'codependency' has not helped me thus far due not only to my circumstances but also due to the gender norms implied in the definition.

I know that it seems like I am leaving a lot of stuff out. Thank you for reading and answering the question if you can.
posted by vincele to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
A quick search of Google Books shows that the term dates back to at least the 80s. Maybe their bibliographies will be useful.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 4:04 PM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Dysfunctional family is an umbrella term that basically means not the expected (healthy) norm for a culture.

Functional family essentially means the healthy norm. Obviously this varies by culture a little bit and ones individual expectations. There is no exact definition clinically. But basically if it hinders childhood development and or exacerbate s/creates mental illness it is dysfunctional.
posted by AlexiaSky at 4:05 PM on March 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

I hear it used in social work all the time, but it's more of a layman's term than a clinical one. Social workers will get into more dynamics of a social system. We use things called a genogram to diagram it more specifically.
posted by AlexiaSky at 4:09 PM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

As far as I can remember, the term has been in use since at least the early 90s, maybe late 80s. (I got a degree in psychology in 1994*.) I'm sure the phrase came out of some kind of psychological publication, or semi-psychological more on the self-help spectrum but lived as a pop culture term that you would hear all the time. I cannot find an etymological source for the phrase. For all I know it did come specifically from the Melodie Beattie school of codependency self-help books, which were huge during that time.

It just kind No, it doesn't belong to Scientology or any particular branch of psychology, sociology, or theology. It is a pretty watered down term (I don't think it's ever been more than a watered-down term, at least as far as its existence in pop psychology), and pretty much any English-speaking practitioner of counseling is going to respond to it much the same as if you said you came from a "broken home" or were a "latchkey kid": "Oh, and what does that mean specifically to you?"

It is not an indicator of some specific pathology. It just means that, from your perspective, the family in question was not fully functional. The definition of "functional" is left as an exercise to you. It's problematic in a lot of ways - my distant and uninvolved father might mean dysfunctional to me, but it could mean something entirely different to someone who grew up in Beirut or with a parent in prison or without a clean water source nearby. It's shorthand for "my family/upbringing wasn't perfect" and...nobody's is.

*My professors had no real interest in the phrase, and they were largely cognitive scientists. It was the sort of thing a student might say and an instructor would rephrase just to not use those words.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:15 PM on March 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Google Ngram Viewer shows that the term first appeared in books in the late 1950s, but did not really start rising in use until the late 1970s. Then in the late '80s and early '90s it skyrocketed, and has been falling off slowly since then.

If you're curious about finding the earliest sources, you can search Google books by year.
posted by mbrubeck at 4:49 PM on March 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

Ok thanks this is all helpful.
posted by vincele at 5:29 PM on March 27, 2014

"...who uses it?"

My sister used it all of the time while we were growing up to describe our family (this was mid to late 90's, east coast of US)
posted by seesom at 6:01 PM on March 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you want to read more about how you, as an adult, might be influenced by growing up in a dysfunctional family, I can suggest two books-
The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller. "Gifted" does not mean smart or talented, it means children with the gift of learning to cope with a narcissitic parent. She writes as if ALL parents cause deep wounds in their children by their unwitting narcissistic behavior. While I disagree with that assumption, if it happens to fit your own family, you may find that this gives you new insight into aspects of your personality that are actually coping mechanisms learned as a child to deal with your parents.
It Will Never Happen to Me by Claudia Black is specifically about the impact of growing up in a home with an alcoholic parent but the patterns that it describes also occur in many other types of dysfunctional families.
posted by metahawk at 6:32 PM on March 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

I read Bradshaw's Family Secrets awhile ago, and he referenced 'the Bowen theory:'
When their parents' marriage is out of whack, children are pushed by the energy of the system as well as by their own need for self-preservation to try to restore family harmony. They will go so far as to sacrifice their own psychological or physical health to preserve family harmony. What looks like an emotionally disturbed child…is really a child sounding the alarm about the parent's marriage.

The essence of Bowen's theory is that a mature family allows each member to separate and develop a solid sense of self-identity. When anxiety is present for any reason, the family moves toward stuck-togetherness and rigidity. The stronger the sense of solid self in individual family members, the less the family stays stuck together. Functional families resolve the problems that are causing anxiety, while dysfunctional families repress the problems or choose ineffective ways to resolve them.
posted by Bron at 6:40 PM on March 27, 2014 [7 favorites]

I feel like I've never not been aware of that phrase, but having been a child in the pop-psych-mad 80s, my first memories of it hover around The Phil Donahue Show and Oprah.

You may find this bit of the Wikipedia entry for 'family therapy' helpful.

For me the key kind of takeaways are, the unit of analysis is the nuclear family (Bowen and family systems theory), which is understood to be a functional whole within which each individual plays a proscribed/prescribed role and interacts with others; parenting styles (good search term) figure prominently, with attachment theory (Bowlby would be the source there) being kind of important; family communication styles are key (in the past while there's been research on, for example, levels of expressed emotion within families and schizophrenia); and an individual's trajectory of development within and through the family should accord with Western models of staged individuation (Erikson influential here).

Kind of within that general framework, lots of research has been done around any number of aspects of family functioning (e.g. children's birth order; sibling rivalry) in relation to any number of aspects of individual development (e.g. cognitive or emotional development; the etiology of various mental illnesses).

Extended families and models of interdependent or other-directed selves are more looked at in cross-cultural research, I think, so far in relation to "eastern" cultures.

I haven't read too much directly about codependency, but I think it might draw from psychoanalytic ideas, like object relations theory.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:51 PM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is this a new concept, a problematic one, or a commercial one?

I see it all the time in reference to TV sitcoms and dramas, and have for as long as I remember -- at least since the 80s.
posted by empath at 1:09 AM on March 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Basically, it's a term from family therapy, but it's not a diagnosis. It's like saying someone is sick. Without more information, you don't know if it's a common cold or cancer. It basically means that there is something wrong with the way the family interacts with each other, without being specific about how.
posted by empath at 1:18 AM on March 28, 2014

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