One of the most dysfunctional family systems is the one depending on substances. When one of the parents is an alcoholic or a drug abuser, both adults and children loose their sense of who and what they can depend on. The entire system becomes absorbed by a problem that is slowly spinning out of control. The family becomes organized around trying to manage the unmanageable disease of addiction.
Little things become big and big things get minimized as pain is denied and slips out sideways. These families may become characterized by a kind of emotional and psychological constriction, where family members do not feel free to express their authentic selves for fear of triggering disaster; their genuine feelings are often hidden under strategies for keeping safe, like pleasing or withdrawing.
They often wind up avoiding genuine connection with each other because family members avoid sharing subjects that might lead to more pain. Then when painful feelings build up they may rise to the surface in emotional eruptions or get acted out through impulsive behaviors. Thus, these families become systems for manufacturing and perpetuating trauma. Trauma affects the internal world of each person, their relationships and their ability to communicate and be together in a balanced, relaxed and trusting manner.
The characteristics of the range of functioning in these families is extreme and can switch from one end to another: from high intensity to shut-down; from impulsivity to rigidity; from grandiosity to low self esteem; from abuse to victimization; etc.
During early childhood years, living in this intense emotional environment can set up a fear of feeling or patterns of attachment that are filled with anxiety and ambivalence. Setting up a repair treatment can often change the whole family dynamics and minimize the long term disadvantages of such harsh conditions of living.