Counseling Center

CC-Website-Banner-Family.pngFamily has a different meaning to different people. Generally it is caregivers and children or people from a common ancestry. Health care professionals define an unhealthy family as one where the relationships among family members are not conducive to emotional and physical health for the individuals. The majority of families experience stressful situations (death in the family, a child's illness, etc.) that may impair functioning. Healthy families tend to return to normal functioning after a stressful event. Unhealthy families' problems tend to be chronic and children inconsistently get their needs met if at all.

Children can be impacted into adulthood by one or all of the following behaviors that often result from difficult family patterns or dynamics. This material is not meant to blame your parents or caregivers. Many parents do not realize that their behavior is harmful to their children and may lack the tools to have insight into their behaviors or coping skills to handle their difficulties.

  • Impaired parenting- Parenting is a complex and demanding task that can be impacted by other factors influencing the parent. Impaired parenting can cause the child to become scapegoated, experience abuse, or emotional neglect. This impaired parenting could exist for a variety of reasons including:
    • Physical illness or physical disability
    • Substance Use
    • Mental illness and developmental disabilities
    • Trauma/Adverse Childhood Experiences within the Parent
  • Parentification of children- Having an impaired parent often leads to a child having to fill the vacant parental role. Unfortunately the child is also acting as an impaired parent due to the child having responsibility but no authority. The child may blame themselves for not trying to make the family better, which may lead to feelings of worthlessness or not being good enough. 
  • Boundary violations- Boundaries delineate physical and psychological space between individuals within a family. Boundary violations typically occur through:
    • Physical abuse
    • Sexual abuse or inappropriate sexual behavior
    • Violations of privacy with no justification
    • Unnecessary exposure to details of marital conflict, sexual relationships, infidelities, etc…
    • Extreme emphasis on and intrusive involvement in achievement-oriented activities
  • Chronic rejection- parents with impairments are likely to be unable to validate a child and the children may be blamed for their parent's difficulties. This often leads to a child internalizing the blame for any rejection they experience at the hands of the parents.
  • Traumatic or Adverse Childhood experiences- Children within difficult environments are likely to have experienced events or witnessed events where they feared for their lives or for others. They may be forced to adapt to chronic emergencies within their families in which psychological and physical survival was a daily issue. This may lead to impaired coping and information processing.
  • Distorted communication- Many topics are likely to have been avoided, which may lead to a child learning backstage/indirect strategies for how to control a situation that does not require direct confrontation while learning to avoid difficult topics and conversations.
  • Distorted cognitions- Rigid thinking patterns are often handed down from parents through modeling, direct, or indirect styles of communicating. As an adult you may have rigid expectations for yourself that involves a perfectionistic attitude and all or nothing thinking.

The previous characteristics of families can have varying impact on a child's development hence impacting adulthood. As an adult, you may have difficulty trusting an environment, others, or yourself. You may have difficulty understanding what "normal" is given the adjustments you were forced to make in childhood. You may be self-critical due to blaming and internalizing difficult emotions and experiences in your childhood. Within relationships, you may be extra attuned to other's needs while not being able to express your own needs or emotions.


If you have identified with the information presented, you are likely to have experienced some difficulties within your family. You have survived and are likely to have some valuable skills that can help in your treatment such as having empathy for others, being achievement-oriented and successful, resilient to stress and adaptive to change. Therapy can offer outside support and validation that can assist you in learning how to have healthy relationships, express your emotions, trust others, process childhood events, and address any self-esteem concerns you may have. Patience is needed throughout this process and some of the resources below may assist in making changes.