Family structures can be diverse—and so can the dynamics between individuals within the unit. Every family will experience disagreements and conflicts from time to time, and none is perfect. However, some have dysfunctional patterns that can be unhealthy for them and their connections 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.
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 well-being of families.
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 use disorder 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.
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 on 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.
The 2022 research cited above also outlines several factors that can support a healthy family dynamic. Some of these include:
When everyone in the family feels safe and comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings openly, some are more likely to feel seen, cared for, and like an important part of the unit. Conflict resolution also typically becomes easier.
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.
In contrast to families with inappropriate boundaries, 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 certainty of mutual support amongst those in their family.
This term refers to “a common 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 feel loved, included, and supported and that communication and conflict resolution are done together, sincerely, and without excessive tension, anger, or upset.
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, and hearing their opinions or needs even if you disagree can all be forms of good listening.
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 families untangle issues like these.
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 individual in the family and appreciating what they bring to the table can help combat this.
There may be healing to be done before this is possible in some families, but showing affection to all—especially between parents and children—can be an important part of a healthy dynamic. Learning the love languages of your family may help.
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 can be a highly effective way to either repair relationships or protect yourself from the unhealthy influence of individuals in the family who won’t change.
If you're still struggling with how to resolve family conflict, maybe it's time to seek the help of the experts. 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 convenient 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.
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.
What are 5 different types of family dynamics?
Family dynamics refer to the patterns of interaction between family members, through the term does not have an exact definition. Dynamics can be both healthy and unhealthy, and the family structure may influence the dynamics of family members. Below are five types of structures and some dynamics that are associated with them:
- Nuclear Families. Often referred to as “traditional families,” nuclear families include a married couple and their children. For previous generations, nuclear families were heteronormative, meaning that the parental relationship was assumed to be between a man and a woman. Today, the definition of nuclear families is more inclusive, applying equally to heterosexual and homosexual couples and their children.
- Single Parents. Single-parent families are those composed of one parent and their children. The other parent has either abandoned the family or died. A single parent is often economically disadvantaged and may face significant struggles that other family types do not, which may significantly increase stress among family members.
- Blended Families. A family is considered blended if one or both adults in the family bring children from a previous relationship. A blended family - also called a stepfamily- sometimes experience challenges as family members are integrated into one family unit. There may be stress from children’s other biological parents, differences in parenting styles, and jealousy between siblings.
- Multigenerational Family. A multigenerational family has three or more generations of relatives - typically grandparents, parents, and grandchildren - living in the same household. Child-rearing responsibilities are often shared among older and younger generations. Eldercare concerns may also be a relevant stressor.
- No-Children Families. Some families cannot have children, and others deliberately choose not to. Regardless, a family is still a family without children. No-children families often have more financial stability than families with children. While they don’t have children of their own, they may still engage with nieces, nephews, or friends’ children.
What are normal family dynamics?
Any family dynamic can be considered normal. In the past, nuclear families, consisting of a married couple and their children, were considered the “normal” structure, but this is no longer the case. Nuclear families do offer some of the best outcomes for children overall, but evidence suggests that other structures may not be harmful if appropriate effort is applied to creating a healthy family dynamic. Various factors affect how families interact, and individual families may incorporate those factors differently.
Rather than distinguishing between normal and abnormal family dynamics, it may be more useful to characterize dynamics as healthy or unhealthy, or functional and dysfunctional. Healthy and cohesive family relationships increase family member resilience, life satisfaction, compassion, optimism, and self-efficacy. Increasing the number of healthy family interactions will likely benefit all family members in many ways.
Here are some common characteristics of families with healthy dynamics:
- Communication is honest and open. Family members have regular face-to-face discussions and take each other’s perspectives.
- Parents support their children, appreciate their individuality, and offer support for their children’s decisions.
- Family members feel that they belong and experience positive interactions.
- Family members regularly express affection through loving gestures and actions.
- The family works together to resolve or repair conflict to increase family resiliency.
What is the most common family dynamic?
Family dynamics are typically characterized as healthy or unhealthy rather than represented by distinct categories. The structure of a family, which sometimes gets confused with the family dynamic, may be a more accurate categorical representation. Structure does influence family dynamics, as some structures are more prone to stressors and challenges than others.
The most common structure is the nuclear family, also called the traditional family. Nuclear families include two parents, usually married, and their children. Traditional gender roles are often observed. In a nuclear family, only children are one child born and raised to two parents. While nuclear families used to be defined as straight, married couples, the modern interpretation of the term is more inclusive. LGBTQ+ individuals are included, and marriage is not required. However, it is still presumed that all family members live together and both adults share parenting responsibilities, even if unequally.
Why are family dynamics so difficult?
Family dynamics include complex interpersonal relationships between family members. Good family dynamics require open communication, perspective-taking, a willingness to resolve conflict, and a desire to show love and affection. Familial trauma, the introduction of new family members (through marriage), and major shifts in family members’ roles can all make maintaining good dynamics difficult.
In many cases, family therapy can significantly improve cohesion and harmony among family members. The difficulties associated with unpleasant family dynamics may be able to be improved if all family members, including extended family members, if necessary, are willing to work together to develop healthy communication and conflict resolution skills.
How do family dynamics affect our lives?
Relationships between family members are heavily associated with personal well-being. Healthy family dynamics usually require empathetic communication, a willingness to resolve conflict, and a desire to show affection and appreciation. If family members are willing to improve and maintain good dynamics, it will likely benefit everyone in the family.
Healthy family dynamics, characterized by strong social support between family members, are associated with several positive outcomes. Evidence suggests good family dynamics can increase life satisfaction, self-esteem, optimism, and self-efficacy. The evidence also indicates that good family dynamics are protective. Strong family relationships are associated with increased resilience and reduced psychological distress.
Why are family dynamics important?
Family dynamics can have a significant impact on the wellness of all members of the family. Good dynamics, usually characterized by strong communication and affection between family members, are likely to lead to better health and improved individual well-being.
In contrast, unhealthy family dynamics, characterized by manipulative behavior, rivalries, and emotional or physical violence, can cause significant problems. Unhealthy family dynamics may increase psychological distress, lower self-esteem, and lower optimism for all family members affected. In addition, family dynamics shape how we interact with others as adults, and unhealthy family relationships may lead to unhealthy relationships with others in adulthood.
How do family dynamics affect children?
Family dynamics likely have an enormous impact on a child’s development. Evidence suggests that healthy family relationships can help a child gain self-esteem, take appropriate risks, and feel safe in their environment. In contrast, children who grow up in families with poor relationships experience numerous negative effects from their family environments.
Children who grow up around unhealthy family dynamics are at a higher risk of developing mental and physical health problems. This may be due to difficulty engaging in healthy social relationships. Healthy socialization is important for maintaining a good overall wellness. Attachment theory proposes that those who grow up in unstable or unhealthy families struggle to form protective social relationships that promote happiness, safety, and stability.
How do you make family dynamics healthier?
In many cases, family dynamics can be improved through family therapy. A family therapist can help families learn good communication skills, which is one of the foundational features of healthy family dynamics. A therapist can also help a family learn other skills, like conflict resolution, problem-solving, and expressing affection.
Families might also choose to attend group sessions or classes, like the Strengthening Families Program. No matter what method families choose, making family dynamics healthier requires dedication, effort, and commitment from all involved. It is not enough for one person to want to improve family cohesion; the majority of family members must be willing to participate and engage in the process.
How can family dynamics change over time?
Family dynamics are sometimes fluid. Any change in the composition of family members or a shift in roles may change how the family interacts. Over time, families develop stable dynamics based on each person's role. No matter what structure a family has, everyone has a role and a function within it. The roles are not necessarily distributed evenly; one family member may carry significantly more responsibility than others. Responsibility also tends to increase over time; a young person in a family will likely gain more duties in their role as time passes.
Bringing new members into the family can substantially shift roles and dynamics. For example, when a child is born to a couple in a family, the couple will likely shift their roles to accommodate their child. This might mean moving away from previous responsibilities in the family system, which will need to be taken up by other family members. Similarly, a death in the family, divorce, or alienation from another family member might mean that roles adjust suddenly.
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