Defining Your Family Of Origin & How It Impacts You

Medically reviewed by Audrey Kelly, LMFT
Updated January 19, 2023by 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. The term "family of origin" refers to the unit that cared for you as a child. 

For example, you might have been raised by grandparents, an aunt or uncle, a family friend, or your parents. Families of origin can also include siblings, cousins, or anyone else who lives with you. Your family of origin may influence your thought patterns and behaviors, especially regarding relationships.

Work Through Family Issues

Family Of Origin And Its Impact

Your family of origin may have had a considerable impact on your development. 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 way you were raised can affect your present and future. That's why it may be valuable to consider your family dynamics when working through any mental health concerns.

Common Family Of Origin Issues

You may find that you carry childhood hurts and traumas into adulthood. As children are wholly dependent on their families, how your family treats you can have a lasting impact. 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 feel helpless, they may develop harmful beliefs later in life.  

If you are in a healthy family of origin, you may feel able to connect with others on a meaningful level and make social connections without a great deal of difficulty. 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 childhood contained trauma or tumultuous relationships, you may struggle to form connections with others. You may also experience anxiety, depression, or other mood or personality disorders. 

In addition, you may experience low self-esteem.  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. Single parents 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.

Relationships 

Like romantic relationships, your workplace relationships, friendships, and many other interactions can be colored by your family of origin. 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.

Self-Esteem 

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 unhealthy behaviors, some problematic behaviors and patterns may slip under the radar. 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. 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 of "family of origin" work, but the exact work involved may differ substantially from person to person.

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.

Work Through Family Issues

Exposing yourself to new cultures, ideas, and relationships 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 accessible 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. 

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.

Takeaway

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.

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