Understanding Unhealthy Relationship Patterns in Your Family

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Our family of origin has a significant impact on how we see ourselves, how we see others, and how we interpret the world. Ideally, children grow up in a family environment that supports them in feeling worthwhile and valuable. They learn that their feelings and needs are important and can be expressed. Children who grow up in supportive environments are more likely to form healthy, open relationships in adulthood.

The definition of family of origin can be subjective and include parental caregivers, as well as other caregivers, such as grandparents, aunts/uncles, other relatives, or even family friends who provide a nurturing environment. Our definition of family is also influenced by our cultural identities—the racial or ethnic groups we identify as, our religious affiliations, and the impact of marginalization or privilege.

However, families may fail to provide for many of their children’s emotional and physical needs. In addition, the families’ communication patterns may severely limit the child’s expressions of feelings and needs. Children growing up in such families are likely to develop low self-esteem and feel that their needs are not as important or perhaps should not be taken seriously by others. As a result, they may form unsatisfying relationships as adults.

College allows for the opportunity to reflect upon ourselves and the impact of our family on our development. We may recognize both adaptive and non-adaptive family patterns, including toxic or dysfunctional family dynamics, which influenced our growth and development.

Unhealthy Family Dynamics

Our family of origin provides the foundation for attachment style, communication patterns, negotiating needs/boundaries in relationships, emotion regulation, and self-worth. At times, parents and caregivers may not understand that certain family dynamics aren’t healthy or do not have the tools to address these patterns. However, it is helpful to understand the impact of unhealthy patterns on one’s own life.The following are some examples of these patterns:

One or both parents have addictions or compulsions (e.g., drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, gambling, overworking, and/or overeating) that have strong influences on family members.

One or both parents threaten or use physical violence as the primary means of control. Children may witness violence, may be forced to participate in punishing siblings, or may live in fear of explosive outbursts.

One or both parents exploit the children and treat them as possessions whose primary purpose is to respond to the physical and/or emotional needs of adults (e.g., protecting a parent or cheering up one who is depressed).

One or both parents are unable to provide, or threaten to withdraw, financial or basic physical care for their children. Similarly, one or both parents fail to provide their children with adequate emotional support

One or both parents exert a strong control over the children. Often these families rigidly adhere to a particular belief (religious, political, financial, personal). Compliance with role expectations and with rules is expected without any flexibility.There is a great deal of variability in how often dysfunctional interactions and behaviors occur in families, and in the kinds and the severity of their dysfunction. However, when patterns like the above are the norm rather than the exception, they systematically foster abuse and/or neglect. Children may:

  • Be forced to take sides in conflicts between parents.
  • Experience “reality shifting” when what is said contradicts what is actually happening. This happens when a parent denies something the child observes, or talks about past events differently than they actually happened.
  • Be ignored, discounted, or criticized for their feelings and thoughts.
  • Have parents that are inappropriately intrusive, overly involved and protective.
  • Have parents that are inappropriately distant and uninvolved with their children.
  • Have excessive structure and demands placed on their time, choice of friends, or behavior; or conversely, receive no guidelines or structure.
  • Experience rejection or preferential treatment.
  • Be restricted from full and direct communication with other family members.
  • Be allowed or encouraged to use drugs or alcohol.
  • Be locked out of the house.
  • Be slapped, hit, scratched, punched, or kicked.

Resulting Problems

Abuse and neglect make it difficult to trust in others and themselves. Later as adults, these people may find it difficult to trust the behaviors and words of others, their own judgements and actions, or their own senses of self-worth. Not surprisingly, they may experience problems in their academic work, their relationships, and in their very identities. In common with other people, abused and neglected family members often struggle to interpret their families as “normal.” The more they have to accommodate to make the situation seem normal (e.g., “No, I wasn’t beaten, I was just spanked. My father isn’t violent, it’s just his way”), the greater is their likelihood of misinterpreting themselves and developing negative self-concepts (e.g., “I had it coming; I’m a bad kid”).

You can heal from unhealthy patterns and even abuse/neglect to build affirming, compassionate relationships and live a life aligned with your values.

Making Changes

Sometimes unhealthy family patterns continue because we are waiting for someone to give us “permission” to change. However, the permission to change lies only within you. In fact, parents in dysfunctional families often feel threatened by changes in their children. Sometimes they may criticize your efforts to change and insist that you “change back.” In the process of healing from unhealthy family patterns, it is crucial for you to trust your own perceptions and feelings. Change begins with you.

Considerations When Making Changes

Reflect on painful or difficult experiences that happened during your childhood. Explore how these experiences impacted you or continue to impact you. Reflect on how you can heal. In addition to working on your own, you might find it helpful to work with a professional counselor or engage in group therapy.

Let go of trying to be perfect. In addition, don’t try to make your family perfect. Focus on making progress.

You may also desire changes in your family dynamic, but realize that there are limits to what you can control and that that it’s important to set clear limits. Identify what you would like to have happen. Recognize that when you stop behaving the way you used to, even for a short time, there may be adverse reactions from your family or friends. Anticipate what the reactions will be (e.g., tears, yelling, other intimidating responses) and decide how you will respond.

Final Note

Developing new behavior patterns can take time; it is common to feel discouraged if you find yourself following old patterns. Change is a slow, graduate process so it is important to celebrate the little pieces of progress as you begin to see the changes in your behavior and reactions.

Want to Know More?

Brach, T. (2003). Radical acceptance: Embracing your life with the heart of a Buddha. New York: Bantam Books.

Brown, B. (2007). I thought it was just me (but it isn’t): Making the journey from “What will people think?” to “I am enough.” New York Penguin Publishing.

Forward, S. (2002). Toxic Parents. New York: Bantam Books.

Gibson, L.C. (2015). Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.

Brown, B. Listening to Shame [video file]. Retrieved fromted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame.