Defining Your Family Of Origin And How It Impacts You

Medically reviewed by Audrey Kelly, LMFT
Updated April 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Content Warning: Please be advised that the following article deals with topics such as family trauma, abuse, dysfunctional family relationships, and other potentially triggering material. Read with discretion. 

Your family of origin is often defined as the family unit in which you were raised. This term is not to be confused with "biological family." A biological family might have little to do with your development if they did not raise you. A biological family may be people you are genetically related to, but you may not consider them your own family. The term "family of origin" refers to the unit that cared for you as a child, these are the people that you had family experiences with growing up.

For example, you might have been raised by grandparents, an aunt or uncle, a family friend, your parents. Families of origin can also include siblings, cousins, or any other family members who live with you. Your family of origin is your first social group and may influence your thought patterns and behaviors, especially regarding a relationship.

Work through family issues

Family of origin and its impact

Your family of origin may have had a considerable impact on your development as your early experiences may shape who you are as an adult. As many studies can attest, your family of origin helps to shape your worldview, determines how you relate to and interact with others, and can impact your mental and physical health. How your caregivers respond to your needs can impact your attachment style as an adult.

These influences may impact more than your childhood. The complex effects of how you were raised can affect your present and future. That's why it may be valuable to consider your family dynamics and family history when working through any mental health concerns.

Common family of origin issues

You may find that you carry childhood hurts and traumas into adulthood and you may need to explore these feelings to move forward. As children are wholly dependent on their families for safety and belonging, how your family treats you can have a lasting impact on your emotional well-being. The dependence of a child can render them helpless in the face of abuse, neglect, and generational problems like dependence disorders, addiction, mental health disorders, and unhealthy family dynamics. When children sense that they are helpless, they may develop harmful beliefs later in life.  

You may feel able to connect with others on a meaningful level and make social connections without a great deal of difficulty if you are in a healthy family of origin. Issues and challenges may feel easier to overcome and a healthy family of origin might help you develop self-confidence and determination. If your goals and personality were supported as a child, you might feel more comfortable with yourself as an adult.


Conversely, if your family of origin experiences contained trauma or tumultuous relationships, you may struggle to form connections with others. For instance, a family with addiction issues can harm the development of the child. To cope with the unpredictable behavior of the addict, family members may adopt family roles in addiction. An unhealthy family of origin may cause One may experience anxiety, depression, or other mood or personality disorders as a result of an unhealthy family of origin. Experiences like this can also cause cyclical patterns that can continue through generations if family circumstances do not change. 

In addition, you may experience low self-esteem which can become difficult to manage without help.  Many individuals experience physical health issues because of their families of origin. These issues may require some amount of introspection or therapy to work through. 

Healthy parental relationships

Healthy families of origin might include marriage. However, some do not, those who are single parenting can also provide their dependents with a healthy childhood. The family structure does not necessarily signal a positive or negative family of origin. A caregiver's ability to interact with romantic partners kindly and respectfully may be more significant. When parents or guardians show their children how to have respectful romantic relationships, they can set their dependents up for marital success.

Conversely, unhealthy romantic relationships may perpetuate generational conflict and troubled romantic encounters. If you're not given a healthy model for these types of relationships, it can be challenging to know how to navigate them. Furthermore, if you only see unhealthy or unproductive relationships as a child, you might adopt those same patterns in your romantic encounters when you grow up and it may be difficult to set appropriate boundaries.


Like romantic relationships, your workplace relationships, friendships, and many other interactions can be colored by your family of origin and your family members play a role in how you interact with others. If your family engaged with others to cultivate friendships and close relationships, you might feel comfortable doing the same. 

However, if other people were treated with suspicion or discomfort by your family, you might feel hesitant about entering new relationships or keep people at a distance.


Supportive families of origin might create an environment where self-esteem can thrive. Families who support one another's dreams and encourage one another's strengths and talents may help produce well-adjusted, healthy children. 

On the flip side, families who frequently resort to criticism and often point out the flaws in their loved ones' dreams, wants, and personalities could cause children and adults to struggle to make decisions independently. These children may have difficulty cultivating independence and living healthy lives in this situation.

Lifestyle habits 

Children often adopt lifestyle habits from their family of origin. For example, if your family rarely exercises, you might also adopt that habit. If your family emphasizes the environment and conservation, you might also value these things. The lifestyle your family of origin leads is likely to form the basis for your lifestyle choices later in life. 

What is family of origin work?

Although many adults recognize or are aware of unhealthy behaviors, some problematic behaviors and patterns may slip under the radar and understanding these patterns can be challenging. Family-of-origin problems may first arise in mental health symptoms or conditions. However, if you can't see a problem, you may struggle to solve it. 

If this resonates with you, know that you're not alone and that building awareness can help on your path forward. Many people have untreated family traumas that they must work through to improve mental health, and the root of these traumas is not always obvious. Talk therapy can be a valuable tool to help you uncover unconscious behaviors, thoughts, or biases that might stem from your family of origin. 

Some people may have internalized misogyny, racism, or classism from their upbringing, while others may have chronically low self-esteem. Others have adopted undesirable habits from their families, such as procrastinating or eating unhealthy foods. All these challenges fall under the umbrella called "family of origin" work, but the work involved may differ substantially from person to person.

Work through family issues

Counseling for family of origin work 

Becoming an adult may involve learning to recognize your biases and where they come from. Introspection could go a long way as you learn more about your thoughts and behaviors. You may want to question your beliefs to move beyond unhealthy relationships, ideas, or belief systems. Asking yourself, "do I actually believe this?" might take you down a road of self-discovery.

Exposing yourself to a new culture, idea, and relationship can also help you begin to unravel issues that may be present within your family of origin. Everyone may benefit from taking a step back from their assumptions and learning to look at the world differently. For many, that involves speaking to a counselor. 

If you find yourself "too busy" for counseling or are unsure how to get started, an affordable and available option for you might be online therapy. An online therapist may support you in finding any family of origin issues or discussing any emotions that come up as you remember your past. They may also help you measure perceived levels of health in your family of origin. In some cases, family therapy can also be helpful to address group dynamics.

Through an online platform such as BetterHelp, you can work through any concerns with a counselor of your choice through online chat, video, or phone calling. Additionally, studies indicate that online counseling is as effective as in-person therapy. For individuals or clients who are seeking family therapy may also find a family therapist who can provide service online.


Family of origin wounds can be challenging to understand and work through. Because they can stem from your formative years and are tied to your family, worldview, and lifelong beliefs, these wounds and patterns might feel too big to address alone. 

With the help and patience of a mental health professional, you may identify and improve difficulties associated with your family of origin. Consider reaching out to a counselor to get started.

Seeking to explore family concerns in a supportive environment?
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