Break Family Dysfunction Cycles With This Powerful Question!

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Breaking The Family Cycle Of Dysfunction Is Difficult

Have you ever heard the saying,” Let’s put the FUN back in dysfunction?” It’s one of my favorite things to say to help break the frustration and tension with my coaching clients! I usually get a smile from my client, and it helps us keep a balanced perspective on the difficulties of family dynamics. Breaking the family cycle is hard work, but you can do it!

We all have family dysfunction, sometimes, it helps to see the humor in it! Each family has its unique patterns of rules and expectations that can cause personal distress and long-term behavior patterns. In “therapy talk,” we call it the Family Rules.

Main Ideas In This Article:

  • All families have “rules” that can be unhealthy and cause dysfunction.
  • We have to “see what is unseen” to create change.
  • If you are an adult, you are responsible for your life choices.

What Are The “Family Rules?”

The Family Rules are just what it sounds like the rules and expectations families have for one another. Often, they are passed from generation to generation. Typically, they are designed to enforce childhood obedience, reinforce gender roles, and maintain a specific social image.

Breaking family cycles of dysfunction can be difficult, but it can be done!

It Can Be Harder For Women To Break Family Cycles

For women, the Family Rules can be a heavier burden. Culturally we have been conditioned to give our time and energy to others. We are praised for being self-sacrificing. While these are essential character qualities for all humans, these expectations land harder on women. This often results in perpetuating dysfunctional family behavior to “keep the peace” or “meet the family expectations.”

We all want to be connected to a meaningful, loving group of people. For some of us, that is the family we were biologically born into. For others, we find our emotional connection with a ‘chosen family.” There is no right way to create a loving, supportive community that will surround you when life gets complicated.

Dysfunctional Families Might Have Hidden Rules

Are you feeling limited because you keep repeating old family dysfunctional patterns and cycles? Does it feel like you keep going in circles, hoping for something to change? What happens when you are tired of carrying the family bucket of bullshit?

For some people, they begin a journey of self-examination and personal growth. You begin to ask thoughtful questions about your life decisions and the results you are getting. And, if you are unhappy with the circumstances of your life, you make behavior changes.

Because this blog serves a primarily female demographic, I will be writing in a general sense to women. But the truth is, asking better questions benefits all people! The information in this article can be helpful to anyone beginning a journey of change.

Your Parents Did Their Best, It’s Time For You To Accept Responsibility For Your Life!

Okay, I get it; we all need to quit blaming our parents for our problems. I agree! In fact, I would go even further- as adults, we are obligated to identify and fix our negative behavior cycles. Although you are the only one that can create change in your life, you might need some help understanding the confusing cycle of negative choices and destructive patterns.

There are helpful pieces of information found in the psychological theories that identify family dynamics. Like genetic similarities, families pass on dysfunctional family patterns- or as psychology calls them, The Family Rules.

How To Break The Dysfunctional Family Cycle

Start With Challenging The Family Rules

Family Rules are very easy to see when you decide to look for them. They are the (generally) unspoken expectations passed from generation to generation. I am not talking about things like basic manners and human etiquette. Qualities like gratitude, hard work, and respect are not dysfunctional expectations to put on a child.

Family Rules are the things that cause you to worry about making personal choices that would disrupt the family peace. You might even get called “a black sheep” for deciding that you are not going to co-operate with the dysfunction.

Sometimes we need help breaking the family cycle!

The Power Of Cycle Breakers

It can be scary to analyze the people that you love and trusted to care for you. The ones who cared for you (or at minimum, kept you alive!) from your earliest memories. And the truth is, when we start to question our early beliefs, we can make those closest to us very uncomfortable.

The fastest route to uncovering and breaking dysfunctional family patterns is to commit to seeing what must be seen.

Another way to say it would be “To make the overt–covert.”

Think of it like this: you are getting into a passenger plane that will fly you through your thoughts and behaviors. For this ride, you have a window seat with clear skies, and you are emotionally ready to see the actual landscape below you.

Is My Family Dysfunctional?

Looking at things from a distance helps us to see the bigger picture. It gives us the information to create a map, connecting patterns and cycles that started generations ago. When you are able to get a larger perspective on generational obstacles, you have greater clarity to make positive changes for yourself.

It is much easier to see the dysfunction, secrets, and rule-keeping from 30,000 feet up in the air!

All Families Have Unspoken Rules

Here are some powerful questions to ask when you start your search for the Family Rules. Short, quick questions are often the best place to gather basic information. When you have your “easy” answers, you are in a position to dig deeper into your own beliefs.

How To Identify Family Cycles Of Dysfunction

What was the family secret?

You know, the thing that they all thought you did not know, but you really did? The thing that got you in trouble when you asked about it? The thing that they told you not to talk about anymore…?

In my family, it was my dad’s alcoholism. In an effort to protect me, trusted adults told me that nothing was wrong. As a young child, I had witnessed scary behavior in my home, but I was given a hug and sent back to bed. And for the next 15 years of my life, I denied what I was seeing in my childhood home.

Family Dysfunction Will Affect Children

In dysfunctional families, it is very common for a child to ask about something confusing, only to have a trusted adult tell them it didn’t happen. Or they should just forget about it and never talk about it again. Sometimes, secrets are spoken or seen; other times, they are invisible, protected by rigid behaviors and expectations.

Trusted adults don’t realize they are creating a big conflict inside a child. In an effort to protect the child, they ignore the child’s emotions, instead trying to redirect the child with reassurance or even changing the topic in an attempt to stop the child from expressing fear. Often, the result of this misguided attempt to “fix things” is a child who is taught to not trust their senses.

Family Secrets Can Cause Unhealthy Adult Behavior

These children grow into adults who struggle with decision-making, often invalidating their own emotions in an effort to keep the peace. A child who grew up with “gaslighting” might rely on people pleasing as a behavior to feel connected and safe.

Families Can Pass Down Generational Dysfunction

What lifestyles were completely off limits? For example, who was the family loser? Or the family winner? What defined winning or losing?

These questions will help you think about the pressure you might feel to conform to certain careers and educational levels. This type of family rule might impact how you choose your romantic partner. It might cause you to rule out potential partners due to their ethnicity or family background.

When our family conforms to a set of rules, we all feel safe. As humans, we feel safest when we know what to expect from those in our close circle of community. This is also seen in social settings; we call it peer pressure. Respecting the rules and boundaries keeps us in the relationship and we retain our social status. Disrespecting the rules can cause us to lose our place in the family or group.

Family Dysfunction Drama: The Role Of The Black Sheep

This is why the phrase “black sheep of the family” is so descriptive. This is a person who chooses to disregard the family rules and risk losing relationships with their parents and siblings. Research shows that the “black sheep” is often the person who is tired of obeying the family rules, rejecting the expectations placed upon them.

Some “black sheep” choose healthier, more functional behaviors and patterns as they disconnect from the family rules. This is generally a pursuit of self-growth and taking responsibility for their life outcomes. It is highly likely that this person has spent some time reflecting on their core values, and chooses to “individuate” from their family of origin.

How To Change Family Dysfunction In Your Life

Unfortunately, we often hear of “black sheep” who are struggling with addictive and destructive behaviors. These folks are often talked about with shame and frustration by their families. Behavior is a mixture of genetics and environment. It is further complicated by our own limiting self-beliefs. To be certain, it is hurtful and concerning when a member of our family struggles with destructive choices.

It’s okay to want something different for your life. But it’s not okay to be confrontational in an effort to force your family to accept their hidden dysfunction. When you begin to break off the chains of the long-held family rules, don’t expect the rest of the family to stand up to cheer and clap for your freedom!

It’s Hard For Dysfunctional Families To Accept Change

Many families will have two types of reactions when you start to break the cycles of dysfunction. The first common reaction might be a type of teasing, making jokes about your changes. Some relatives might say things with an accusing tone like: What, are you better than us?

Or maybe your mom says something in jest, like: Who are you and what have you done with my daughter? Slight teasing is uncomfortable, but you don’t owe them an explanation for your new choices. Just smile and thank them for noticing your new behaviors.

Stay firm in your decisions to change your thoughts and beliefs.

Be prepared for some people to have stronger expressions of concern when you begin to change your behavior. It can be very alarming when someone we know begins to “change the rules” and it impacts us. Remember that despite some of the painful dysfunction, your family is doing their very best to love you and keep you connected to them.

But the fast track to uncovering and breaking dysfunctional family patterns is to see what must be seen.

Breaking The Family Rules

You can effect inner change if you are willing to be honest and focused on your self-growth. Prepare yourself for waves of real confusion and potential protests from family members when you dive out of the family boat and into the waters of personal change.

Generations have created the dysfunctional family patterns. As you make personal changes, expect slow and begrudging familial acceptance at best.

Use The Powerful “Stick Of Dynamite Question” To Break The Family Cycle!

As you begin to see dysfunctional family patterns and are ready to reduce their influence, you need a question that blows it all out of the water!

Quick, clean questions are incredibly helpful when are struggling with emotional resistance to our desired change. We want to change, but our brain will tell us it’s too hard OR everyone will be mad at us OR we don’t know what the next step is to move forward.

Your Brain Is Lazy, Keep It Simple

Our brain is biased toward conserving energy. So, in a sense, it wants to keep us in the familiar cycles of behavior. If the brain already knows what is going to happen, the more energy it can conserve. Changing your life takes a tremendous amount of energy and your brain will resist it like a cat trying to avoid a bath!

What To Do When Aunt Betty Is An Annoying Old Cow

When you are feeling the family pressure to conform, there is no time to Google psychological Ninja moves to block the well-practiced guilt gymnastics performed by Aunt Betty! If your Aunty Betty is like my Aunt Betty, she has achieved a black belt in passive aggression and “not-your-business” questions. Annoying old cow!!

The rules, the expectations, the manipulation, and the grab for control can all be leveled by asking yourself this question:

“The Stick Of Dynamite” Question To Break Family Dysfunction

Do I want what they have?

  • In detail, do you want the relationships they have?
  • Do you want the financial outcome they have?
  • Do you want your children to behave the same way?
  • Do you want the attitudes and behavior they display?

Do YOU want what they have? Ask it again. And again. And every time going forward, when there is pressure on you to conform or reinforce the family rules, ask it.

You Can Break The Family Cycle Of Dysfunction

Dysfunctional family patterns are broken when they are identified and questioned. This is your new superpower!


  • Simple clear questions lead to inner clarity.
  • Telling the truth will move emotional obstacles.
  • Letting go of other people’s expectations will increase your physical and mental energy.


Challenging the family rules is hard, lonely work. It can bring up feelings of abandonment and separation from the patterns that once ruled your life. But, like any decision to grow stronger, the muscles must be challenged and fatigued, prepared to be tougher the next workout session.

Creating an authentic, curated life takes courage and strength. Do your best to avoid falling into the trap of justifying the changes you are making in your life. Breaking the family cycle takes energy and determination.

If you are financially independent, you are an adult. You do not need permission to make changes in your life. Take a deep breath, light the dynamite question, and remember, your life is best decided by you!

If you need help with painful family dysfunction, I offer individual relationship coaching. Click this link to read more about my education and experience. I can help you create a life you love!

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Melane Ann is a writer, blogger, and life coach. In 2020, she turned her experience in midlife divorce and creating a new life for herself into midlifeismagical. With a master's in Marriage and Family Therapy, Melane focuses on helping women over 50 navigate their relationships and commit to healthy aging. She and her new husband share 7 children between them. Melane jokes that she has a black belt in blended families! In addition to her writing, Melane works virtually with her coaching clients from her home office.

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