Families come in all shapes and sizes, from nuclear families and extended families to biological families, foster families, and families of choice. Your family might include your parents, siblings, grandparents, spouse, children, extended family, and others. While the idea of family means different things to everyone, for many of us, it can be a valuable source of love, support, and security.
However, family relationships can also be sources of pain and stress. In part because they mean so much to us, relationships with family members can be among the most difficult to navigate.
What are family issues?
Family issues are when conflict between or related to family members becomes especially intense or frequent, to the point that it interrupts your day-to-day life.
Some degree of conflict within families is normal (and even, to a point, healthy) and the family dynamic for each person may be different. But when a family cannot resolve conflicts and and emotional intensity around the relationship becomes overwhelming, it can lead to symptoms of common mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression.
How common are family issues?
Because family problems vary so much and these concerns are deeply personal, it’s hard to say for sure how common they are.
However, evidence suggests that various types of discord within families are fairly common overall. For example, one study on tension in relationships between parents and adult children found that 94% of participants reported at least a little tension in their parent/child relationships. Family issues also tend to come up around the balance between parenting and professional pursuits. The Pew Research Center reports that in nuclear families in which both parents work full-time, both partners often feel concerned that they don’t spend enough time with their children and/or partner.
These examples are only a small subset of the diverse kinds of family issues you might experience; whatever your challenges are, there are likely countless other people facing similar issues with their families.
What are some symptoms of family issues?
Family problems are different for everyone, and people vary widely in their emotional and psychological responses to these issues. That said, some of the most common symptoms include:
- Anxiety or worry: You may be frequently preoccupied with concerns about your family and struggle to focus on other things. Over an extended period, this can translate into mental health issues.
- Sadness or depression: Feelings of tension, conflict, or disconnection from your family might make you feel sad or hopeless.
- General stress: You may have trouble sleeping or experience physical symptoms including muscle tension, headaches, and digestive troubles, often time due to family worries like financial troubles or other money problems, or the inability to resolve conflicts in your own home.
- Conflicts with other loved ones: If a relationship with one person is upsetting you, you might find that issues also come up with other people you’re close to. For example, tension with a parent might make you more sensitive in your relationship with your partner. Or differences between parenting styles may affect healthy communication within the family as a whole.
- Low self-esteem: Feeling insecure or threatened within a relationship that means a lot to you can make you doubt yourself and your worth.
Different types of family issues
Again, issues in families come in countless forms, and this is by no means an exhaustive list. However, some especially common forms of family issues include:
- Parent/child conflict: In part because our parents often play such a large part in our earliest development, issues between parents and children can be especially emotional and deeply rooted. These family problems are evident in foster families and adoptive families as often as they are seen in related family life.
- Issues with siblings: Competition, comparison, different relational styles: all of these (and many other factors) can lead to conflict with siblings.
- Conflict around culture, religion, or lifestyle: Families often have set notions of the kinds of lives members should live, especially when a particular religion or culture plays a prominent role in the family’s life. When one member of the family goes against these established norms, conflict can follow.
- Caregiver stress: Taking care of children, supporting a family member with a health condition, navigating the family’s money management or caring for an elderly parent are all examples of situations that can cause caregiver stress.
- Communication issues: You don’t feel heard; you wonder whether the other person understands you; you struggle to say what you mean. These are all forms of communication issues, a common setback in many family relationships.
- Violence, abuse, and gaslighting: When any family issue turns into emotional or physical violence or intimidation from one or more other family members, the relationship(s) can be considered abusive. Abuse is usually far more dangerous and stressful than the other family issues described here.
What to do if you’re experiencing family issues
If you’re experiencing any form of stress, conflict, or danger in a family relationship, you have several options. Some of them include:
- Therapy: Find a therapist who can help you address your family problems and give professional advice to work toward resolving them. You might work with a therapist with individual therapy, or you might attend couples’ or family therapy, in which multiple people participate in sessions with a therapist.
- Meditation or mindfulness practices. Making space for quiet reflection can help you gain perspective on your family issues and give you a way to approach them calmly, and it may also reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety that these issues can cause.
- Journaling. Taking time out of your day to keep a written record of your thoughts and feelings around your family problems and personal challenges may help you clarify your perspective on these issues and their role in your life.
- Connect with other friends and loved ones. When a family relationship is stressful, it can be helpful to rely on the other important people in your life. They may be able to help you understand your family issues and can also reduce the pressure on the stressful relationship(s) by reminding you of the other people you love and rely on.
- Hotlines and safety resources: If you are experiencing abuse in a family situation, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or www.TheHotline.org. If a child may be in danger, you should also contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453. If you’re having thoughts of suicide or need immediate support, you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
How to look for in a therapist for family issues
Seek a therapist who specializes in working with your particular family issue
Therapists offer several different approaches to treating family problems. Some approaches involve just one person attending sessions, while others might require two or more family members to attend.
Common options include:
- Structural Family Therapy
- Couples Therapy
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Psychodynamic Therapy
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
- Interpersonal Psychotherapy
Know what questions you need to ask potential therapists
These questions may prove helpful when interviewing potential therapists:
- What therapy type (possibly one of the examples above) do you use when helping families work through issues?
- Do you have experience working with clients in my/our situation? How have you helped them?
- How long can we expect to see you for?
Prioritize personal fit
While personality fit is a nuanced factor, it is critical to your success in therapy. Multiple studies have revealed the importance of this factor, often referred to as “therapeutic alliance.”
On your initial phone call with the therapist, ask yourself:
- Could I see myself forming a connection with this therapist?
- Does their approach suit my personality?
- Do I feel like I will be heard and respected by this therapist?
Additionally, consider these factors:
- Some therapists are more reflective and spend most of the session listening and drawing insights about your patterns and coping styles.
- Some therapists are more directive and establish weekly agendas or delegate tasks to complete between sessions.
- Some use specific techniques or tools (exposure exercises, eye movements, tapping, breath work, guided imagery, art and music, etc.).
- Some use a combination of multiple approaches.
Consider cost, location, and scheduling
Therapy will only work if it works for you. Before making an appointment, ask yourself honestly:
- Can we afford these session fees? The cost of therapy depends on location, practitioner, and whether you’re using insurance.
- Can I commit to attending sessions regularly? Remember to account for travel time, and other demands in your schedule.
- Do the therapists’ available times work for me? Some therapists offer evening and weekend appointments if you have an otherwise limited schedule.
New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.