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Adult dysfunctional family syndrome (DDD) - more and more patients hear this diagnosis in psychological offices. DDD is manifested by difficulty coping with emotions, building successful relationships, and insecurity. What are the causes of DDD and how is the disorder diagnosed?

What is DDD (adult child from a dysfunctional family) syndrome?

DDD is experienced by people brought up in families where parents do not fulfill their basic functions properly, exposing the child to, among other things, physical and mental violence, lack of support and attention, growing up feeling threatened and insecure or taking over responsibilities, which should be implemented in a natural way by the guardians.

Contrary to popular opinion, this problem does not only concern families with alcohol problems. Unfortunately, there are many houses where, without the parent's abuse of psychoactive substances, the family as such does not fulfill the basic care and upbringing tasks.

Some specialists perceive the DDD syndrome as too general and not very specific, seeing no need to treat its symptoms as a separate issue for psychotherapy.

Who are DDD - adult children from dysfunctional homes?

In order to understand what lies at the heart of DDD, it is worth looking at the family as a system in which every element, every member of it, affects the others. In well-functioning systems, the roles are predefined.

For example, parents and the relationship between them should be based on responsibility, closeness, respect, and children being influenced by a pattern inspired by them should have conditions to build self-esteem, agency and interpersonal relationships in a developmental way. Thanks to this, the child has the opportunity to assimilate social norms and learns to enter into relationships with other people.

What are family dysfunctions?

Family dysfunction consists, among other things, in the lack of space to respect the child's needs, as a result of which in adulthood the person experiencing DDD is also unable to recognize and recognize as actual and, consequently, satisfy his needs.

Another aspect of this syndrome is the complete confusion of roles, and as a resultthe system is seemingly trying to make up for its shortcomings or give the impression of being well-functioning.

In this situation, children are placed or themselves, as a result of circumstances, enter into roles which, due to their disastrous influence, should not be faced in order to maintain a sick family system. Maintaining these roles in adulthood is one of the main symptoms of DDD.

Read also: Domestic violence: types and stages of domestic violence

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What roles does DDD take?

The roles that the child takes over most often in order to save the family system include:

Scapegoat- shows, among other things, educational problems, often a weak student, often gets involved in fights, quarrels, etc. Taking up destructive behavior is often used to blame him for all the problems that the system struggles with, at the same time allow you to discharge negative emotions on it. The scapegoat not only channels the emotions of the family through his behavior, but also defrauds inept parents for insufficient support or attention that they devote to him, creating the appearance of releasing them from responsibility for the situation at home,

Family hero- a responsible, always helpful child, often a good student, whose trophies help maintain the illusion of family order. This child usually takes over the parents' obligations, e.g. taking care of younger siblings or keeping the house in order. This role is often assigned to the feeling that the child and parent have changed their responsibilities.

Invisible child- quiet, withdrawn, not causing problems, but not distinguished by special achievements. The escape into the unreal world (literature, music, etc.) was a way of reacting to the family situation and giving the appearance of security,

Trustee- it is usually with him that one of the parents entrusts the troublesome details of family life, confides in problems, giving the impression of the child's uniqueness. The confidant is used to ventilate or handle the parent's emotions, which in consequence gives the impression that there is no need to confide in an adult outside the family.

Emotions of adult children from dysfunctional families (DDD)

A child growing up in a dysfunctional system lives under constant and excessive stress. Misunderstood loy alty to the family, shame or fear of consequences, e.g. legal, makes it difficult for the child to seek external help, as a result of which he develops insufficiently constructive defense mechanisms to deal with the whole situation (indestructive way).

These people often supersede emotions and memories that are difficult to confront, and rationalize inadequately while developing behaviors and attitudes in their repertoire that meet the system's expectations. Unfortunately, the consequence of such a reaction is often a fear of establishing relationships, a complete cut-off from feelings or an inadequate way of experiencing them, and the difficulty in showing trust both on the interpersonal and social level.

Read also: ACA syndrome (adult children of alcoholics) - symptoms and principles of therapy


We can talk about family dysfunction when:

  • there is an addiction in the family, e.g. to psychoactive substances or of a behavioral nature, e.g. hazard,
  • there are diseases, mental disorders or poorly handled chronic diseases,
  • there is physical, psychological or sexual violence,
  • the family broke up due to divorce, death of a parent, emigration, etc.,
  • in family relationships the following are becoming dominant: excessive control, distrust, accusation, over-demanding requirements, silence and denial of real problems, a feeling of incompletion or a badly broken relationship.

Symptoms of DDD (an adult child from a dysfunctional family)

An unequivocal statement which of the areas of life with a deficit results from the DDD syndrome and which is a consequence of other difficult experiences is often a problem. Some specialists, depending on the current in which they work, declare a different approach to working with the issue of DDD.

Nevertheless, when thinking about the diagnosis, symptoms and possible therapy, one should start with the correct model. Well, at every stage of development, a person learns to function in the area of ​​self-knowledge, social, identity, etc. If any of these stages has been disturbed, it affects the way of functioning in adult life.

When trying to generalize the symptoms of the DDD syndrome, it is worth noting that it is based on the inability to deal with emotions. Overworking this sphere of life allows to raise the quality of functioning in other deficit areas.

Adult children from dysfunctional families usually face difficulties in the area of:

  • self-esteem, which is often manifested by the inability to deal with anger,
  • lack of a sense of security expressed by excessive or improperly handled fear,
  • sense of femininity / masculinity, which is usually associated with excessive sexual shame or withdrawal,
  • skills to love and be lovedassociated with a sense of sadness and inadequately depressed mood.

The DDD syndrome in the emotional sphere is expressed in two ways. It is often an escape cutting off of feeling in this sphere, preventing communication with others and with oneself, or it is associated with redundancy, an overflow of emotions, almost taking control of conscious action.

Simplifying the list of symptoms, we can talk about the occurrence:

  • irritability, emptiness and problems with concentration,
  • prolonged emotional tension, sadness, anxiety and anxiety related to somatic symptoms,
  • predict the negative consequences of your actions and worry too much about the future,
  • low self-esteem and competence, while achieving academic and professional success, etc.,
  • beliefs about self-sufficiency while avoiding taking up challenges related to personal development,
  • stiffness in the area of ​​assessing one's own and third parties' behavior, intentions and emotions,
  • procrastination resulting from the fear of making a mistake or not completing a task imperfectly.

In interpersonal relationships, both those close and those seemingly neutral Adult children from dysfunctional families usually show:

  • fear of getting into relationships,
  • lack of ability to build partnerships, derive satisfaction from being in a close relationship and, consequently, an above-average divorce rate,
  • inability to share your emotions with others,
  • difficulties in the area of ​​social competences and conflict resolution,
  • trouble finding yourself constructively as a parent.
Patrycja Szeląg-JaroszPsychologist, coach, personal development trainer. She gained professional experience working in the field of psychological support, crisis intervention, professional activation and coaching.

He specializes in the area of ​​life coaching, supporting the client in improving the quality of life, strengthening self-esteem and active self-esteem, maintaining life balance and effectively dealing with the challenges of everyday life. She has been associated with non-governmental organizations in Warsaw since 2007, co-runs the Center for Personal Development and Psychological Services of the Compass

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