13 Signs Of Mentally Ill Family

Uploaded 5/23/2023, approx. 16 minute read

Mentally ill families create mentally ill people.

But how and why?

What are the signs and hallmarks of a mentally ill family?

Today I am going to review 13 of these signs.

Did you notice that 13 is an unlucky number in all cultures, civilizations and traditions, more or less?

Except in Judaism where it is a lucky number.

The bar mitzvah, the communion of Jewish boys, is at the age of 13.

Good luck to them!

So today, unlucky families, mentally ill families, 13 signs, hallmarks, red alerts and warnings, listen to this list. And by the way, apply it to your own family.

Let me know in the comments.

Take these 13 signs and ask yourself, "Is my family like that?"

If you score more than 6, your family is pathological. Pathogenic generates pathologies in its members, generates mental illness in its members.

And if you scored more than 10, it's hopeless and you should seriously consider to go no contact.

My name is Sam Vaknin and I'm the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited. I'm your dysfunctional family online and I'm a former visiting professor of psychology.

Let's delve right into this delectable topic.

First of all, I would like you to watch two videos, Narcissistic Families, Pseudo-Mutual and Pseudo-Rostan. The other video is Toxic Family Holidays Gathering Survival Guide.

I also wish to remind you that the full transcripts of most of my videos are available on website and as an Android app. Just go to the description and click on the links. Description is under the video. The video is above the description. Got it?


Okay, 13 signs of mentally ill families.

Number 1. The family acts as a single organism. It is an enmeshed, merged, infused system. There are no individuals in such families, in pathogenic, pathological families. No one is allowed to separate and individuate and acquire personhood.

So all the members of the family behave as if they were cells in a multicellular organism.

The family moves forward or backward as one, reminiscent of the military or total organizations such as a prison.

These kind of families are exclusionary. They exclude outsiders. These families are xenophobic or paranoid. Strangers are suspect, are best avoided. They are the long arms and the representatives of a hostile world.

There is a general perception of the human environment is detrimental and dangerous. Other types of pathological and pathogenic families are exactly the opposite. They are permissive, they are promiscuous or unboundaried. People come and go, including strangers and outsiders. They just come and go. They enter the physical living space of the family. They parasite on the family. They use the family or leverage the family's resources. They bond with certain members of the family. They create coalitions.

And so some families are closed units, not open to outsiders, suspicious of strangers, rejecting an exclusive or exclusionary xenophobic and paranoid.

And other types of pathological families are exactly the opposite. Open, permissive, promiscuous. Both types of families are sick.

These are two dysfunctional modes of running families.

A balanced family, a healthy family, provides a modicum, some form of firewall against the world out there, but lets in relevant information, helpful people, interactions, socializing, and so on and so forth.

This family should never be 100% permeable or 100% impermeable.

Number two, these kind of pathological families, mentally ill families, emphasize appearances, not substance. They are perfectionistic. They are pseudo hostile or pseudo mutual. They present to the world a facade of love and care and compassion and solidarity while inward inside what's really happening is a kind of pernicious, virulent civil war. Or they present to the world a facade of hostility, rejection, suspicion, paranoia, xenophobia, hatred, etc., etc.

So pseudo hostility and pseudo mutuality, I recommend that you watch the relevant video.

But these families are preoccupied with the way they appear to others, to neighbors, to peers, to teachers, to social workers, in church, in the community, etc., preoccupation with the peers is so extreme that there is a total neglect of real substantive dynamics.

And there is an emphasis on never getting it wrong. Infallibility, perfectionism, top marks, 9.5 is not enough. It should always be 10.

So this is the second sign of a dysfunctional family.

The third sign, out of 13, yes, the magic number.

This kind of family provides a selective interface between internal and external realities.

Now, hold your horses. All families do this. All families serve as membranes. They let in, as I said, certain data, certain people, and they keep others out for a variety of reasons, for example, a value system.

But the mentally ill family, the interface that the mentally ill family provides is rigid, uncompromising, punitive, and therefore separates internal reality from external reality to the point that they can never be seamlessly integrated.

Does this remind you of something? Right you are.

The mentally ill family engages in rampant splitting.

Some people are all good, others are all bad. Some situations should always be avoided. Some sought after. Some vocations, avocations and occupations are disgusting, repulsive, low brow, and should best be shunned. Others should be pursued because they are prestigious or whatever.

So it's always either/or, black and white, good and evil.

The mentally ill family, exactly like the mentally ill individual, in some personality disorders, engages in splitting. And splitting is a defense mechanism.

The mentally ill family serves as a defense mechanism writ large. And the defense mechanism is internalized, introjected by its members via the parental figures. It becomes an integrated or integral part of the process of socialization and acculturation because parents are usually socialization agents. They represent society to the children.

Number four, the mentally ill family enforces a narrative. The narrative could be totally delusional, divorced from reality, paranoid, narcissistic, crazy, psychopathic, borderline narrative. It could be anything. It could be utterly insane. But it is rigidly and aggressively enforced. And the narrative is coupled with sanctions and punitive measures.

You adhere to the narrative. You pledge allegiance to the narrative, time and again if you are a member of such a family.

Actually, adherence to the common narrative of the family is the main loyalty test.

And these kinds of families engage in loyalty testing time and again.

Of course, this is reminiscent of another type of social organization, the cult. Mentally ill families are cultish in the sense that it's we against the world, us against them. There is a very prominent perception and conception of the other and the otherness of the other.

Number five, mentally ill families reinforce emerging roles and competitive hierarchies. Each member of these families is allocated a role.

You are going to be the fixer. You are going to be the healer. You are going to be the bad boy. You are going to be the incorrigible slut. You, etc. You're going to be the scapegoat. You're going to be the golden child. These are all known as emergent roles.

Mentally ill families allocate emergent roles exactly like healthy families.

The allocation of emergent roles is common, is normal process in all families.

But in mentally ill families, the emergent roles, ill match, mismatch the children.

So the wrong child is usually chosen for the role and then the role is enforced if necessary by violence. This creates competition, internal competition, as some of the members of the family aim to transition from one role to another to usurp someone else's role.

So there are competitive hierarchies in these families and they are arbiters, decision makers, judges, if you wish.

The whole family functions like an extended court.

I mean Kafka, Franz Kafka wrote his famous book, The Trial. It might as well be seen as an allegory of such a family or to such a family.

There are father and mother who are the judges or maybe only father or maybe only mother. They are the judges and the children compete and enlist in constant kind of jousting in an attempt to replace each other as the favorite or the golden child or whatever.

Number, let me count, one, two, three, number six.

The family, the mentally ill family, places an emphasis on the ambient, on the implicit, on the hidden text, on the unspoken, on the unthought known.

It's a concept which was first described by Bolas, B-O-L-A-S.

This kind of family does not verbalize. More things go unspoken of than spoken of. Everything is in the air, atmospheric.

You have to guess all the time. You have to decipher and decode. Communication is cryptic. It's like there's a cabal running things, like there's some arcane hidden knowledge, a mysterious of sorts.

This is this kind of family. It is penumbral.

And this kind of family is never overt, never explicit. And it imposes this vow of secrecy on all its members.

You should not launder the family's dirty laundry in full view of the neighbors.

Sunshine disinfects abuse.

These kind of families are highly abusive. There's a lot of coercive abuse and a lot of implicit or ambient abuse, a lot of verbal abuse, and so on and so forth.

So to hide this, they block the windows, they close the doors, and they devolve into the basement. They are basement crawlers, you know, these kind of families.

The family is in constant darkness and shade, terrified as if it were made of vampires, terrified of sunshine and its disinfectant qualities.

Number seven, this kind of mentally ill family, mentally ill families make use of emotional blackmail, ostracism, shunning or excommunicating members, wayward members, rebel members, defiant members, and as I've mentioned, lots of coercion.

The coercion could be, again, verbalized, non-verbalized. For example, in many of these families, the main instrument of coercion is unmet expectations.

The parental figures promulgate their expectations.

And if you don't meet these expectations, your punishment is to be ignored, neglected, ostracized, mocked, and so on and so forth.

Now, in some of these families, in extremes, the parents don't even verbalize their expectations. They just punish you if you don't meet them.

So in many of these families, the overriding expectation is mind-reading. You have to read the minds of the godlike figures of your parents or else.

There's always an "or else." Everything comes with a price list and a cost and a punishment penalty. And everything is transactional. Love is not unconditional. It's doled out in meager portions. And it is subject to performance, but not just any performance.

The performance that gratifies the parental figures, the performance that caters to their unfulfilled dreams and fantasies, the performance that makes them look good outside to outsiders.

So this is a mentally ill family.

Next, all mentally ill families. And there is no exception.

I know you're going to be told there are exceptions. There are no exceptions.

All mentally ill families have what I call wrongful intimacies.

Wrongful intimacies are sexually and emotionally inappropriate, boundary-breeching behaviors, inappropriate and unboundary behaviors.

So emotional incest, actual incest, parentifying, regarding the child as your substitute spouse, creating coalition with children against the opposing parent, colloquially known as parental alienation.

All these happen very often in mentally ill families, sexually and emotionally inappropriate families.

Next, the mentally ill family is past-oriented or and/or future-oriented.

It is nostalgic. It idealizes the past. It grieves and mourns the bygone era. It focuses on the past as the main venue for learning personal growth and personal development.

Similarly, it imbues the future with an inordinate weight. The future becomes extremely important via fantasy or compulsive daydreaming or manic planning.

So these mentally ill families live in the past or they inhabit the future, but they never reside in the present. Never. They are never mindful. They are never content. They are never in the here and now. They are always floating somewhere in the midst of time, past. They are what I call archaeological families or they vanish into the future.

And I call these fantastic families or fantasy-oriented families.

Mentally ill families are sinks and amplifiers of negative effects. The mentally ill family places much more importance on emotions such as anger, envy, hatred, fear, resentment, criticism, self-destructiveness, defeat, failure, being a loser, etc.

There is much more emphasis on these negative effects, negative emotions and negative experiences, in short on negativity rather than on positivity and positive psychology.

Mentally ill families process negativity much faster, much better, much more often than anything positive.

And even if there is by mistake some penetration or intrusion of positivity into a mentally ill family, it's immediately reframed as something negative.

So I gave you an example. You come home and you say, "Mommy, I just got 9 in the exam out of 10." And mommy would say, "Why didn't you get 10? You're inadequate. You're lazy. You could have easily gotten 10. How am I going to face my neighbors now, your teacher, your father?"

So a positive thing, an accomplishment, a self-esteem building block, something that helps with your self-confidence, self-image. Your mother or your father would be sure to ruin it for you. They would reframe and convert it into negativity.

Both the parental figures and the members of the family have no experience in processing positivity. They either catastrophize and they say this positive thing is temporary and is likely to end up badly.

Or they regard positivity as a form of faking something wrong, deception or self-deception. They become suspicious and paranoid when they are faced with positive things, positive events, positive accomplishments, and of course, positive people.

Mentally ill families are negative. Mentally ill families allow for role reversals. Children become the parents of their parents, a process known as "parentifying."

I have several videos on my channel regarding "parentify." Children are treated as adults and their expectations in commensurate with such treatment. I call this process "adultifying."

These are role reversals. The parents are the only adults.

Even families that on the surface appear to be very equitable, egalitarian and compassionate are actually mentally ill families.

So when parents consult their children as if their children should have a say because they are like adults, they are mentally ill parents.

If the child is given latitude and freedoms which should be absolutely strictly reserved for adults, that's a mentally ill family.

If the children are unbounded, spoiled, pampered, idolized, pedestalized, and so on, that's a mentally ill family.

These are all forms of abuse.

Role reversals in mentally ill families are very common.

Actually, in psychodrama, we use the technique of role reversals to undo the damage of mentally ill families.

But I will not go into it right now.

In the next few days, I will make a video on transactional analysis and so on and so forth.

There is a video on role reversal and doubling in psychodrama, techniques that I am well acquainted with.

And in my counseling, I advise my clients to use, especially the more recalcitrant clients, the more difficult clients.

The members of mentally ill families are egodystonic, they are unhappy, they are unhedonic, unable to experience true pleasure, they are depressed, they are anxious, they are even suicidal or entertain suicidal ideation. They are always eager to flee the confines of the family and never look back.

I'm mentioning this because these are the easiest signs to spot.

If you see children who are perpetually unhappy, who can't be aroused by any type of pleasure, who are visibly depressed and anxious, who talk about death and suicide frequently. If you come across adolescents or young adults who just run away as far as possible and as soon as they can from their families, their family is probably mentally ill.

And finally, I mentioned at the very beginning that mentally ill families create mentally ill people.

The mental ill family reifies insecure attachment styles and mental health issues.

When you talk to outside observers, they would tend to characterize mentally ill families in single phrases. They would talk, they would discuss mentally ill families as if they were mentally ill individuals, a single organism.

So when you talk to the neighbors of mentally ill families, to teachers, to social workers, they all refer to the mentally ill family as if it were a single person. They say they are all so dour and depressing or they say this family is grandiose or reticent or aggressive or hateful or boring or stupid or whatever.

Mentally ill families come across as the embodiment of some kind of mental dysfunction.

These are the 13 signs of mentally ill families. Score your own family.

And again, if you score six, something is seriously wrong with your family. If you score 10 and more, go no contact.

This is a severely disturbed and pathogenic, pathologic creating environment. You don't want to be involved in it a minute longer than is necessary.

And yes, honeys and honeys, you can go no contact with your mother, with your son, with your husband or ex-husband, with your father, with your sister. With your brother.

No contact is a survival strategy. Survival should trump any family affiliation, especially if the family is out to get you.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like the following:

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Daddy Issues: Daddy's Girl, Mama’s Boy, Father Complex

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The Mentally Ill Form Couples

Mentally ill individuals often form couples or dyads, which can lead to fused relationships and trauma bonding. Coping strategies include active denial, enabling, and avoidance. Avoidance can lead to extreme estrangement and cruel disengagement, causing the mentally ill partner to act out in provocative or reckless ways. In extreme cases, the significant other can become a superego replacement, leading to major depressive attitudes, psychotic disorders, and even suicide.

DANGER: Paranoid Ex

To minimize the danger of a paranoid ex, it is important to put physical distance between yourself and them, change contact details, and not inform them of your whereabouts. It is also important to be prepared for violence and to alert law enforcement officers, check out domestic violence shelters, and consider owning a self-defense weapon. Paying attention to unusual patterns and events can help identify if a paranoid ex is monitoring you. It is important to teach children to avoid the ex and report any contact. Appeasing the ex is futile, and it is important to use the law to obtain restraining orders and ensure they spend time in jail.

Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers

Narcissistic mothers can have a significant impact on their adult daughters' relationships, with children of narcissistic parents being ill-adapted and prone to deploying psychological defense mechanisms. They can become co-dependent, needy, demanding, and submissive, fearing abandonment and displaying immature behaviors. Some children of narcissistic parents become inverted narcissists, craving relationships with narcissists, while others become counterdependent or even narcissists themselves. Narcissistic mothers micromanage their child's life and encourage dependent and infantile behaviors, emotionally blackmailing them and threatening to disinherit them if they do not comply with their wishes.

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Borderline to Narcissist: I Will Abandon You First

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Paranoid Stalker Ex

Abusive ex-partners often resort to lies and half-truths to cope with the pain of separation. They may also resort to self-delusion, which can make them dangerous. The only viable coping strategy is to ignore the abusive ex and take necessary precautions to protect yourself and your family. Avoid all gratuitous interactions, and do not collude or collaborate in your ex's fantasies and delusions. If your ex is paranoid delusional, he may be very dangerous, and you should take steps to minimize the danger to yourself and your household.

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