Dimensions Of Family Functioning

When working with abused and neglected children, it is useful to consider six aspects of family functioning. These are; relationships, communication, problem solving, relationships outside the family, decision making, and planning. When we think about abused and neglected children, we usually focus on the direct abuse and neglect they have experienced. It also is important to understand the family experiences they have had. How their families functioned has a lot to do with how they do or do not adjust.

Illustration: Family Functioning


  1. Interdependent

  2. Supportive

  3. Protective

  4. Fragmented

Outside Relationships

  1. Coordinated

  2. Mutual

  3. Alienated

  4. Disconnected


  1. Congruent

  2. Searching

  3. Ritualistic

  4. Random

Decision Making

  1. Task centered

  2. Participatory

  3. Autocratic

  4. Paralyzed

Problem Solving

  1. Flexible

  2. Exploring

  3. Mechanical

  4. None


  1. Integrated

  2. Synthetic

  3. Expedient

  4. None


Within families that function well, relationships may be thought of as interdependent. Here is how it works. The adults relate to each other and to the children in part based on the adult needs and interests. They also relate in part based on the needs and interests of the children. Everyone receives consideration; and each relationship depends on the others. In this sense, family members are interdependent.

At a less functional level, family relationships are supportive. This means family members do not necessarily try to adjust to each other but do try to help and support each other. They will be sensitive and helpful when it does not require much special effort or changes in their priorities and preferred ways of doing things.

At a more dysfunctional level, family relationships are protective. This often occurs in families where alcoholism or violence are present. Family members learn to 'stay out of the way' as much as possible and play the family 'game.' The chief rule of the game for family members is not to upset things and to do what they can to protect each other. The protection is, of course, from the alcoholic or family member who becomes violent.

As an aside, any time there is a problem, it was someone's fault. This is how children come to blame themselves for everything. Their low self-esteem, in part, is because they believe they are bad people who cause bad things to happen. Of course, it is never the fault of the alcoholic or violent member. It is the fault of the member who did not do 'something' to keep the problem from happening. That is who did not protect. (It really is as pathological as it sounds.)

At the most dysfunctional level, family relationships are fragmented. There is no family in any normal sense. People go their separate ways and try to stay out of the way of others. Often, severe physical abuse happens in this type of environment.

It works like this. Those who are bigger or stronger do not accept or adjust to anyone or anything that gets in their ways, irritates them, requires their accommodation, or displeases them. They yell at it, hit or kick it, throw it aside, take out their rage on it, or otherwise do what needs done to eliminate the annoyance.


As with relationships, communication in some families is very functional, while equally dysfunctional in others. At the most functional level, communication is congruent. Simply, this means family members are, as the saying goes, usually 'on the same page.' They listen and seldom misunderstand. This is true whether the communication is relaxed and comfortable or more tense and heated. It is true whether the interaction is quick or more leisurely. Congruence is there in the sense of fit, meaning, intent, and feeling. It is not usually necessary to 'read between the lines,' wonder what someone meant, or be concerned about whether what was said was what was intended.

Congruent communication is easiest to understand in contrast to incongruent communication. At the first level of incongruence, communication is searching. This happens when families are somewhere between hearing and understanding each other and finding themselves unable to communicate. Family members are trying to find or search out common meaning and understanding. Sometimes they succeed. Nonetheless, much of the time they do not.

Here is the problem. As a family member, one cannot tell for sure on any given occasion. This means you are always a little uncertain and anxious. You cannot trust and depend on what others say or how they respond to what happens. This level of mistrust and uncertainty is the norm for foster children. At best, then, foster parents and what they say also are suspect.

At the ritualistic level, communication has nothing to do with trust, faith, and understanding. One says the expected and hears what others say as nothing more than an automatic and expected response. Each person is on his/her own; but everyone goes through the motions and conforms with the family rituals. The value is in the ritual and not in honesty, openness, and caring. A conversation might sound like this.

What do you think? 'I don't know.' You have to have some feelings about it. 'I feel the same way you do.' I feel very upset and angry about it. 'Well, I feel badly about it. I am sorry.' You should be sorry. 'I'm sorry, I won't do it again.' You better not. 'I won't.'

At the most dysfunctional level, family communication is random. Sometimes people talk and sometimes not. Sometimes what they say is relevant and sometimes not. A key to this is hearing people say things that seem unrelated to the conversation or noticing they have completely changed the subject. For example, the question might be, 'What do you think about it?' The random response is, 'Are we going to eat soon?'

Children who have grown up in families where communication is random are, as they say, like talking to a stone wall. They are usually deferential; but either they do not respond or come back with something 'random' or unrelated. It is as if they were paying no attention or had been hearing a totally different conversation. Not only are they on a different page, they are not even in the same book. (Think about how it would be for these youngsters to find themselves in a family that took congruent communication for granted. At a minimum, they would feel confused and like they were outsiders.)

Problem Solving:

Communication and relationships tend to be at the same functional level in a family. Now think about how the family goes about problem solving. It matches the levels of relationships and communication. For example, when relationships are interdependent and communication is congruent, problem solving usually is flexible. This means it depends on who has the problem and who is in the best place to solve it. Each family member depends on each other member to handle things appropriately.

Here is how it works at a somewhat more dysfunctional level. Suppose relationships were supportive and communication were searching. How would the family solve problems? They would help each other search for solutions. This is exploring.

This is the problem. A child asks, 'Can I have a cookie?' 'I don't know. Let's talk about it. What are the arguments for and against your having a cookie?' As we see, exploring can be the norm for problems from trivial to serious. Also, it is not clear who is or should be responsible for deciding.

The dysfunction becomes clearer as the functional level deteriorates. In more dysfunctional families, problem solving is mechanical. 'No,' may be the mechanical response to any request. It may be getting angry or upset is the mechanical reaction to any problem. 'We will do whatever your father says,' is another possibility. Some families use worrying and fretting about everything as the usual approach. The point is every problem is dealt with in the same way, by the same people. There is no thought of finding a solution fitting the person having the problem and the welfare of the family. This is, in part, why families have the same recurring difficulties and children continue problematic behavior despite efforts to help them change. The idea that new behavior and approaches might lead to better outcomes is simply a foreign notion. For them, it is unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and thus not desirable.

Outside Relationships:

Turning attention now to relationships outside the family, the levels of dysfunction still apply. These include relationships with neighbors, the school, social agencies, and others outside the home.

At a highly functional level, these relationships are coordinated. Each family member has and manages outside relationships that are healthy and work to the benefit of the member and, at least, do not cause problems for other members. Activities get scheduled, things that need to happen do happen, problems get worked out, and all goes well for the family most of the time.

Even when outside relationships are mutual, things usually go well. Family members are supportive and try to work out problems and activities so there is not too much hassle. If a serious problem develops such as a child's having trouble at school, (an outside relationship problem) the family will try to help if doing so does not interfere too much with other activities or ways of doing things. It may not work particularly well for the child. Nevertheless, people see the family as cooperative and do not find fault or see them as not trying. They want to help; but. . . .

Outside relationships may become alienated. The family and its members are not a part of the neighborhood, school, or community. For the family, there are always reasons for the alienation. Their main feelings are anger and resentment. When working with these families, they seem disinterested and resistent. They are 'hard to reach.' The children also become similarly characterized.

At the most dysfunctional level, outside relationships become disconnected. There are no relationships. These families respond only to pressure such as the courts or some other threat. The same disconnected relationships are not uncommon for youngsters from such families. They think, feel, and respond in the same dysfunctional ways as their parents.

Decision Making:

Here is where the health or pathology in the family comes to the forefront. In well-functioning families, decision making is task centered. Usually, anyone needing a decision either has or can earn the right to make the decision. For example, a ten-year-old may be told when to study. By twelve, she may get a little encouragement. By fifteen, studying is her task and when to study is her decision. Even then, though, she probably will not be the one to decide whether she studies; she just decides when. At the same time, she may be the one to decide about her bed time but not about whether she gets up to go to school. She has to go to school.

Somewhat less functional is decision making that is participatory. This is hard to see since it is a method often presented as the best way. The idea is for all family members to participate in most decisions. The implication is participation is like having a vote.

When stated this way, the dysfunction is clearer. Not everyone does or should have a vote. Getting the ideas and opinions of others and taking them into consideration are different from everyone having a vote. 'I will think with you about the problem; but I will not decide for you. It is your problem and your decision. You and I will talk about the problem and then you will decide,' The participatory approach would be, 'You and I will talk and then we will decide.'

Autocratic decision making is more obviously dysfunctional. The autocrat (usually an adult but sometimes a child) makes all decisions based on whatever pleases or seems best to him/her. No one else makes decisions or learns how to make decisions, for that matter.

At the extreme, decision making is paralyzed. No one decides and nothing gets resolved. An autocrat can at least decide something. This says nothing about the quality of decisions; but even bad decisions may, in the long run, be preferable to no decisions. In the latter circumstance, children are left completely to their counsel and devices. This is neglect at the extreme. We often hear, 'I cannot do anything with that child or about his problems,' in families where decision making is paralyzed.


This may be the nub of family functioning. Effective planning requires effective relationships, solid communication, responsible decision making, and an ability to define and solve problems. At its best, planning needs to integrate all these into a process that similarly integrates the needs of the family as a whole and family members as individuals with differing priorities and concerns.

When this level of integration is not present, planning becomes synthetic or artificial. Only the immediate and obvious are taken into consideration. Planning is more an add-on for the family than an integrated part of the family itself.

Suppose, for example, a family member became seriously ill. An integrated plan would adjust for and accommodate an ill member and take this fact into account in the future. A synthetic plan would keep everything as is as much as possible. Only those changes would be made that were absolutely necessary, without consideration for smoother or easier ways of doing things. The ill member is still a problem; but the family is managing. This approach may, itself, cause problems that will be added onto the family as new burdens. The addition becomes an excuse or reason for more stress and greater dysfunction.

From synthetic or add-on planning, deterioration moves to expedient planning. Whatever works now is the plan. The future and broader issues receive no consideration. At this level, families develop financial problems, take actions that eventually make things worse, and become increasingly dysfunctional. The culmination is in no planning. Luck (usually bad) and fait are blamed for what happens. 'Let the chips fall as they may.' Unfortunately, the chips that fall are often children who are the ultimate victims of family dysfunction.

This point is hard to accept but important. The more dysfunctional the child's family has been, the more closely identified he is with it. It is the familiar, the normal. Everything else seems very strange and suspect. This is, in part, why such children are so difficult to work with and to integrate into alternative environments.

Consider what the problems and issues are for youngsters. For them, family difficulties are both serious and hard to handle. It is important to know these types of problems concern both young people and parents. Often the trouble is because of the behavior and attitudes of the adults and often because of those of the young people. Much of the time, though, it is a combination.

It is true parents are responsible for their behavior and relationships with their children. It is also true the family cannot work for everyone unless both the adults and the young people try to understand and do what they can to make it work.

Many things can lead to problems in the family. Problems with stress, relationship difficulties, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts and feelings, value problems, and mental illness can all make it hard to be a family. Usually, though, family problems are because of the behavior and attitudes of family members. From this perspective, family problems require family solutions.

For the following situations, what effect do you think each would have on a child? What would it do to his growth and development? How would it affect his ability to get along and adjust? What might you do and say that would help a youngster who had experienced the situation?

  • Parents did not care about what he/she thought and felt.

  • Parents did not know what he/she needed and what was important to him/her.

  • He/she could not live up to what others expected.

  • Parents did not know about or help with his/her problems and difficulties.

  • People in his/her family were always fighting and arguing.

  • People in his/her family were violent and hurt each other.

  • Members of his/her family abused alcohol or other drugs.

  • Members of his/her family did illegal or immoral things.

  • Parents (or someone else) were abusing him/her sexually, physically, or in other ways.

  • Had sex with much younger or older people.

  • Wanted to escape from or get away from his/her home or from members of his/her family.

  • Cannot be permitted to live with his/her family. (May be due to his/her problems or those of the family.)


The situations here are representative of the essence of the problems and difficulties experienced by abused and neglected children. If we look at the signs individually, we can see the process of permanent damage to the child. It is this process that leads to high stress and low self-esteem. It may have lead to suicidal thoughts and behavior and to interpersonal dysfunction. The non-nurturing effects on the youngsters caused them to be more likely to have value related problems including involvement with the police and courts. They are likely to have serious learning problems and may have an increased risk of mental illness. Not only are they more vulnerable to exploitation; they are much more at risk of most problems and difficulties affecting children.

Abused and neglected children may see interest in and caring about them as limited and unreliable. To the extent people care about them, any real understanding is suspect. To the extent anyone really understands, the extent to which they truly care is uncertain. For the youngster, 'If you really understood and truly cared, you would be there every day, in every way, forever.' The vulnerable child within the young person wants, needs, and understands nothing less.

By Gary A. Crow, Ph.D. March 24, 2017