Tips On How To Identify And Handle Unhealthy Family Dynamics

Updated November 8, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Family structures can be diverse—and so can the dynamics between members. Every family will experience disagreements and conflict from time to time, and none is perfect. However, some have dysfunctional patterns that can be unhealthy for its members and their connection over time. Read on to learn more about different types of family dynamics, and then discover how you may be able to handle an unhealthy one.

Facing A Difficult Family Dynamic?

Why Family Dynamics Matter

Family are usually the people you’re surrounded by as you grow up. They’re those that you spend a lot of or even most of your time with when you’re young, and sometimes as an adult, too. For these reasons, the dynamics can have a significant impact on the wellbeing of family members. 

Research has found that the stress and even trauma of some unhealthy family dynamics during childhood are linked to an increased risk of developing both physical and mental health problems.

One study found that these experiences can increase an individual’s risk of developing heart, lung, and liver disease, anxiety, depression, and other conditions. Another found that unhealthy dynamics increase the risk of substance abuse and addiction among adolescents. 

Still another found that some types of conflict between parents and adolescents are associated with more aggressive behavior in those adolescents. Plus, through transference, people may unconsciously continue to play out unhealthy family dynamics from their childhood in work and life. Healthy dynamics, on the other hand, offer those involved a better chance of positive life outcomes.

Factors That Contribute To Unhealthy Family Dynamics

Research updated in 2022 outlines key factors that contribute to healthy and unhealthy family dynamics. Unhealthy dynamics include enmeshment, or a lack of appropriate boundaries, isolation, rigidity, disorganization, unclear communication, and role conflict. 

An informational page from Brown University lists other ways family dynamics can be dysfunctional. These include a parent or caregiver who:

  • Has a substance use problem or compulsive tendencies, such as drug or alcohol use, overworking, or overeating
  • Is abusive in some way in order to exert or maintain control
  • Does not have appropriate boundaries with their child and may use them primarily for emotional support, for example
  • Has an authoritarian-style power over others in the family, with rigid expectations for the roles they should fulfill
  • Can’t or doesn’t provide for a child’s basic needs, or makes fulfillment of them conditional on the child’s behavior

While these mainly apply to parent-child or caregiver-child relationships, there are other types of family dynamics that can be unhealthy, too. Sibling bullying can cause detrimental effects for the bullied children throughout their lives, for instance. The relationships between adult children or between adult children and their parents can have unhealthy dynamics as well. Parents who ignore or criticize their children’s feelings or choices, do not communicate effectively, or talk about past events differently than the way they actually happened may be exhibiting unhealthy patterns. Finally, it’s important to note that outside factors may cause, contribute to, or exacerbate some of these patterns. Unemployment, the loss of a parent or child, generational trauma, or similar elements can also play a role.

Factors That Contribute To Healthy Family Dynamics

The 2022 research cited above also outlines several factors that can support a healthy family dynamic. Some of these include:

  • Clear communication: When everyone in the family feels safe and comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings openly, members are more likely to feel seen, cared for, and like an important part of the unit. Conflict resolution also typically becomes easier.

  • Stability: Whether it’s due to the behaviors of those within the family or to outside factors, volatility in a dynamic can be difficult to deal with. It may cause interpersonal conflict, basic needs not being met, a breakdown of communication, or other unhealthy effects. A family in a stable situation has a much better chance of building and maintaining a healthy connection.

  • Role reciprocity: In contrast to families with inappropriate boundaries, the members of those with this kind of reciprocity have reasonable expectations and responsibilities that are appropriate for their roles (i.e., parent versus child). They also have the security of mutual support amongst those in their family.

  • Mutuality: This term refers to “a shared feeling of cohesion and warmth,” according to the research previously cited. It was identified as the strongest contributing factor to a healthy family dynamic.

A healthy family dynamic can take different forms. In general, it simply means that all members feel loved, included, and supported, and that communication and conflict resolution are done together, sincerely, and without excessive tension, anger, or upset.

Ways To Improve A Family Dynamic

If your current family dynamic has room for improvement, there are some strategies you can try to help make it healthier.

  • Learn to listen: Active listening is an important part of healthy communication patterns, upon which relationships of all types are generally built. Being open to hearing all sides of a conflict, taking an interest in the lives of your family members, and hearing their opinions or needs even if you disagree can all be forms of good listening.

  • Forgive: Past conflicts can be held onto within families for years or even generations. Communicating and working toward forgiveness will often be the first step toward developing healthier family connections. Working with a therapist may help members untangle issues like these.

  • Celebrate uniqueness: Some families experience problems that stem from comparing one child or parent to another or holding unrealistic expectations about each other. Recognizing the uniqueness and diversity of each family member and appreciating what they bring to the table can help combat this.

  • Show affection: There may be healing to be done before this is possible in some families, but showing affection to all members—especially between parents and children—can be an important part of a healthy dynamic. Learning the love languages of your family members may help.

  • Set boundaries: It can be difficult, especially if others in your family don’t do this or if there were blurred or absent boundaries in childhood. However, clearly communicating your own needs and limits and enforcing them with family members can be a highly effective way to either repair relationships or protect yourself from the unhealthy influence of family members who won’t change.

How A Therapist Can Help

Trained therapists generally have a wealth of experience working with people who come from or are currently experiencing unhealthy family dynamics. While you don’t have the power to get your entire family to see a therapist, seeking out this type of guidance yourself can make a big difference. A counselor can help you identify and heal from past family trauma and work to form healthier patterns for the future. They can assist you in learning how to do things like set boundaries and communicate calmly with your family, even if these actions aren’t reciprocated.

Family relationships can be difficult, and you may not be able to meaningfully improve your family’s dynamic. If that’s the case, a therapist may still be able to help you work on strategies that can make things easier for you going forward or assist you in protecting yourself from further harm.

For those who are seeking a more accessible way to connect with a counselor, virtual therapy is an option. Research suggests that therapy conducted online can offer similar benefits to therapy conducted in person, and many people find it to be a more comfortable and cost-effective option as well. Through an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a therapist who you can speak with remotely, from the comfort of your own home. 

Takeaway

Family relationships are often complicated, involving many layers and many years of interactions. Some of the tips outlined here may help you create a better dynamic within your family. However, note that your own happiness and mental health should generally take priority if the situation seems to be beyond repair. A therapist is one option for helping you heal from unhealthy family dynamics and figuring out a healthier way forward.

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