10 Tips For Creating a Dysfunctional Family In Your Fiction

To paraphrase Tolstoy: “All messed up families are the same, they are messed up in a different way.”

If you want to create conflict in your fictional family life, there are millions of different ways to do it. Generally speaking, most conflict in families comes from power struggles. In abusive situations, one person usually holds most of the power and they conditionally give power to the other members of the family.  Here are a list of 12 general ways that this power struggle might manifest itself in a family. And as awful as it is to go through in real life, the fight for power is a gold mine for conflict that can keep your plot going. 

1. All affection, encouragement, gift-giving, and basic nurture is conditional.

That means that every time a parent gives something to a child — and it could be something as basic as a good meal, or a hug, or even encouragement — the One In Power withholds the gift until they receive what they want from the powerless. This often results in anger, disappointment, jealousy, frustration, and bitterness. Ask yourself: What kinds of things can the power holders keep from their family members? How does this make the others’ feel? 

2. There’s a “My way or the highway” mentality from the family members who keep control.

The whole family understands, after decades of growing up, that submission to the rules and dictums is mandatory. (Also? Rules often change on a whim.) This results in misunderstandings, bitterness, a lack of confidence, and fear. Ask yourself: what are the biggest rules your characters have to follow in this dysfunctional family? What happens when they can’t or won’t follow them? What kinds of threats or manipulations come with pushing back? 

3. Dysfunctional families blame a scapegoat.

An abusive person wants to blame someone for their bad behavior so they often pick on someone in the family. “If she wasn’t so  . . .  We wouldn’t be this way.” This is severe emotional abuse and can lead to low self esteem, self-harm, depression and anxiety on the part of the scapegoat. Ask yourself: how can the more abusive members of the family pass their responsibilities off on others? How can your more abusive characters exaggerate circumstances, manipulate facts, and bully the scapegoat? How else can family members take the blame?

4. The family environment is hostile to “feelings.”

Honesty and vulnerability is mocked, ignored, or seen as weakness. Weakness isn’t acceptable because the perfect public persona of the family is the most important goal. Any acknowledgement of error or imperfection is unacceptable.  Mistakes, errors, or failures often result in devastation, depression, and self-harm.  Ask yourself: how can the members of this family close up their feelings and emotions? How to they deal with their anger and rage? 

5. A dysfunctional family is divided.

It’s Mom against Dad, or kids against each other. Everyone is expected to take sides and throw accusations at each other. No one is interested in reconciliation. Everyone is far more interested in the power plays that come from the drama. This breeds suspicion and distrust. This is a miserable place to be in a family setting. Ask yourself: what are the big issues that would divide the family? How petty can you make them? 

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6. A dysfunctional family treats love as a commodity.

In some emotionally abusive situations, the person in power declares limits on their attention, communicating that there’s not enough love or respect to go around. They may complain that their family “owes them” or they “keep score” on how the other family members treated each other. This causes a jealousy and pettiness. It warps what unconditional love is.  Ask yourself: How can your more powerful family members communicate that they can’t love everyone? How are they fighting for attention of their own? How can unnecessary competition fuel the fire of dysfunction?

7. A dysfunctional family wants to be seen as perfect at all costs.

Many times a parent’s obsession with appearances will result in children’s eating disorders, depression, or anxiety. Abusers who have this mindset can often be financial abusers who withhold basic family needs so that they can have the best house or car or whatever. Ask yourself: How does the public appearance of my fictional family affect their day-to-day decisions? How do the family leaders manipulate their image for the best light? What happens if faults are discovered? 

8. A dysfunctional family is often angry.

Family members who are constantly fighting for control will lose their tempers often and this can result in all kind of trouble, like violence, verbal abuse, and physical damage. As a result, the children growing up in these kinds of situations think that rage is normal and that all confrontations should end in blow-ups. Ask yourself: How can the members of my fictional dysfunctional family demonstrate their anger? What sets them off? What kinds of consequences will they face as a result of their anger? How do they justify their anger? 

9. A dysfunctional family is often in denial about their flaws.

Often a chronic abuser is so narcissistic that that they can’t even comprehend that they are imperfect — it is as if any mistake is an impossibility. This causes a myriad of problems. If they don’t see that they are wrong, then they refuse to change. They will often deny responsibility and honestly believe, in their own twisted way, that they are always right. This is especially jarring when they are negligent or violent and yet can’t admit that they did anything wrong. This type of behavior of a parent can seriously mess a kid up.  If you want this kind of behavior in your story, ask yourself: What specific actions are the controlling forces denying? How do they lash out? How do they justify the wrongdoing that they have committed? 

10. A dysfunctional family is psychologically and emotionally unsafe.

Members who don’t have the power are never free to say what is on their mind, never allowed to express themselves, never respected. As a result of this, a great many psychological problems can occur, not the least of which is anxiety and depression. If you want your characters to be unsafe, consider research “toxic at home” or “toxic at work” and ask yourself if others’ stories can translate into your scenarios. How are the abused characters in your story silenced or weakened? What do they do for escape? How do they express themselves? 

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.