5 Reasons for Family Dysfunction

Lately, I have dealt with several families that are dealing with extreme trials. The makeup of these families is different; some with adult children and some who are still young. In some cases, the parents are mostly to blame; in others, the kids deserve the most. I am not an expert on family dynamics or dysfunction by any means, but I nonetheless have thought about this and believe there are some reasons for family dysfunction, reasons that the Bible addresses. Your family may be dysfunctional because of:

1. Unhealthy Expectations

We see this in many forms. Parents have certain expectations for their kids: where they will go to school, what they will do for a living, who they will date/marry, where they will live, etc. I’m not denying that parents should be influential in their kids’ lives on these things. But as a child ages, parents should recognize that a child must be allowed to make their own decisions, for good or bad, and be forced to deal with the consequences.

On the other hand, it’s possible for kids to have unhealthy expectations of their parents. Parents aren’t perfect, nor will they ever be. Sometimes, kids need to cut their parents some slack. Parents have a tremendous emotional investment in their kids; bizarre as it sounds, kids may need to be the adults and be forbearing with their parents when the relationship becomes “dicey.”

The apostle Paul wrote, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Rom. 12:3). When I bind my unhealthy expectations on family members, I very well may be thinking of myself too highly and of them too lowly. With wisdom and discernment (both of which come through prayer and the advice of godly counsel), I can determine what are healthy and unhealthy expectations.

2. Selfishness

This one is huge in families. Selfishness is the reason we have SOME unhealthy expectations, but sometimes it manifests itself in more insidious ways. Sometimes, I just want my way. Unhealthy expectations can be borne from a sincere desire for good for others. Selfishness knows no good for others. Selfishness only wants what’s best for me. I have specifically seen this at play in families in which a family members has selfishly chosen to embrace a sinful lifestyle they know will cause their family grief. This is so sad to witness. We must all realize that our actions have consequences for others. Parents can make selfish decisions that impact their kids, and vice versa.

Just after he warned about doing things out of selfish ambition, Paul encouraged, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). I can improve my family relationships when I seek the interests and good of others, rather than myself.

3. Poor Priorities

Though they may not be primarily driven by selfishness, parents and kids can often adhere to poor priorities, and these can cause family dysfunction. What are the priorities of your family right now? What types of events take precedence? School events? Sports? Are both parents essentially married to their jobs/careers?

Well did Joshua warn the children of Israel, “And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, … But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Josh. 24:15). Poor priorities can be a destructive force in families because the consequences are often never recognized until it is well too late. Allowing your child to become disengaged from spiritual activities in order to attend school or sporting activities will eventually pay terrible dividends in the future.

Poor priorities, though, can also be seen, not only in how we steward and spend our time, but also in stewarding our finances and other resources. I think one of the best things parents can spend their resources on is fun, memorable (not necessarily expensive) vacations with their kids. These moments can help bring the family closer together (back-seat fighting—not so much). What your families’ priorities right now, and will they give your family a more harmonious future in the Lord?

4. Lack of Communication

Some families are dysfunctional because they simply don’t talk to one another. They speak words to each other, but someone (if not everyone) isn’t really listening. These types of conversations are often difficult. Painful. But also necessary. There may be anger and resentment towards some in the family because someone didn’t live it up to an expectation that was never verbalized. Uncommunicated expectations can be a nasty source of conflict, nasty because it could have so easily been prevented. I’m sure there have been times someone became upset with you because you did/did not do something, but you never knew anything about what you were supposed to do/not do.

James reminds us, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (Jas. 1:19). If there is dysfunction in your family, the worst thing you could do is ignore it and not talk about it internally. We often talk about our frustrations with everyone EXCEPT the person we are frustrated with. Instead, talk about it. But do more than talk. As James advises, listen more than you talk. And watch your temper. If inflammatory things are said to you, ignore them and stay focused on the real issue. I think you will be amazed at the different perspective you walk away with.

5. Lack of Self-Awareness

It amazes me how little self-awareness I exercise, as do others. We have so many distractions in today’s world. To the universal list of job and family obligations, add to that things like TV, social media, email, texting, etc.

Everyone needs to call time out and think. Just think. Have you ever noticed how many times the New Testament encourages us to “consider” something? To reflect on various things? A helpful practice for me is to turn off the radio when I’m driving and think through things. Like, say, my recent actions or the way I’ve interacted with my wonderful wife. Thinking through past actions, good and bad, helps me to avoid present and future failures. I’ll never be perfect, but if I never self-assess or “consider myself,” I’ll never mature into a person more like Jesus.

Paul wrote, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves” (2 Cor. 13:5). Maybe there is dysfunction in your family because some individuals are not self-aware. Dad doesn’t know he’s so gruff with the kids or with his wife. Mom doesn’t know that she open pouts and throws a fit to get her way. Kids don’t realize they are taking advantage of their parents in some selfish ways. If we were to sit down and assess ourselves honestly, we might realize that we are part of the problem. At that point, it’s up to us to then become a part of the solution.

Father, thank you for families. Thank you for the encouragement and unconditional love they give us. But I also pray for those families that are hurting right now. It is sometimes difficult to love our families. Help us to do that. Give us humility to see what we can do to help heal any dysfunction or animosity that might exist. Father, use your Word to help our families grow stronger and more faithful to you. Help us, Father, to be better examples to the world, one that desperately needs strong families. In Jesus’ name. 

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