mbg Spirituality & Relationships Writer
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, and a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor’s in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.
December 26, 2021 — 12:03 PM
No family is perfect, but for people whose family life has never been outright “bad,” it can be tricky to spot family issues as they arise. Family problems are much more than abuse or addiction, for example, and include a host of different things that affect every member of a family. Here’s how to spot family issues and deal with them, according to experts.
What are family issues?
Family problems or issues include any sort of dynamic, behavior, and/or pattern that disrupts the household or family at large. They can range from smaller, more common challenges like clashing personalities or divvying up household chores, to more intense issues like having a narcissistic parent, abuse, or intergenerational trauma, according to licensed psychotherapist Babita Spinelli, L.P.
The main thing with any family issue is that it creates stress and tension within the family, which in turn negatively affects the members of that family, particularly if there are young children involved.
Types of family issues:
1. Clashing and/or toxic personalities
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Starting off basic, it’s far from uncommon for a family to have clashing personalities. Perhaps siblings don’t get along with one another, or one child doesn’t get along with one or both parents, psychotherapist Annette Nu?ez, Ph.D., LMFT, tells mbg.
This can go a big step further when you’re dealing with someone who displays narcissistic tendencies or other toxic traits, Spinelli adds, which introduces a bunch of other issues into the family unit, such as gaslighting or explosive fighting.
2. Poor communication
Nu?ez and Spinelli both note that lack of open and healthy communication is at the root of many more general family problems. As Spinelli explains, if it’s really difficult to actually speak to a family member, if there are trust issues, if they dismiss you, or issues get swept under the rug, those are all family issues surrounding communication.
3. Heavy pressure from parents
Perfectionism within a family can have extremely negative effects on children and their self-worth. As Nu?ez notes, when parents shame or dictate how children should feel or be, it can take a toll on their ability to grow as individuals. “Parents do need to have some boundaries but not when it gets to the point where it’s emotionally abusive,” she explains.
Things like conditional love, or a deep sense of pressure to meet the expectations of your family, indicate some family issues, Spinelli adds. It could even lead to what’s known as golden child syndrome.
4. Different parenting styles
One of the biggest hurdles of parenting as a couple is figuring out how to combine your parenting styles in an effective way. When you can’t, it can cause some problems.
“It can cause a lot of tension when parents aren’t on the same page with parenting,” Nu?ez tells mbg. And if you’re dealing with extended family, Spinelli adds, having the input of in-laws when it comes to your parenting can also cause some problems.
So many families will deal with challenges surrounding finances, budgeting, and employment. Spinelli says money problems can include one parent making all the money and feeling burdened, not having enough basic funds for what you need, generational issues around poverty or gambling, and so much more. Money touches most areas of our life, and if there are issues here, the effects will be felt within any family.
6. Managing the household
It might seem juvenile, but chores really matter. If one person is carrying the weight of maintaining the household, that’s a lot of responsibility and pressure. Nu?ez notes it’s important for household labor to be divided up in a fair and age-appropriate way, so one parent doesn’t feel taken advantage of, and children begin learning how to take care of themselves.
7. Unchecked addiction or mental health issues
If a parent (or even a child) is dealing with mental health issues or addiction, that can cause a huge rift within a family unit. It’s important for those things to not only be addressed but also talked about in an open and honest way.
As Nu?ez explains, “If a parent feels like they’re hiding mental illness or any type of substance abuse from a child, kids pick up on that. They pick up on those nonverbal cues of inconsistency, and children do need consistency to have a strong family foundation and feel secure.”
8. Constant arguing
If you grew up thinking constant arguing was normal, according to Spinelli, it’s very much not. “Some people don’t realize that the constant bickering and arguing is actually an issue–they’re just so used to it. They don’t realize that when there’s yelling or screaming and arguing, that actually creates stress and tension.”
It’s not uncommon, but yes, divorce certainly does disrupt a family unit and can cause problems when it’s swept under the rug. “You’d be surprised how many people haven’t processed divorce in the family,” Spinelli says, adding, “It really does impact how you see relationships, and models fears around relationships, and often people don’t even talk about it in the family.”
While it can be hard to avoid, distance within a family can cause a lot of issues around expectations and boundaries, according to Spinelli. For example, as the holidays approach, there are often arguments around who’s visiting whom, why someone has decided not to visit that year, and so on, she explains.
“Codependency comes in all shapes and sizes,” Spinelli tells mbg. While some instances of codependency are mild, the more enmeshment you find within a family, the more the individual members of that family will have a hard time distinguishing their own wants, needs, and desires, she says.
12. Scheduling conflicts
Nu?ez notes that another common family issue is scheduling conflicts. If one or more family members has a busy schedule, it can be hard to connect together and make time for each other. This can look like one parent who works long hours and is rarely home during the day, or issues with scheduling as children get more involved with extracurriculars, she explains.
13. Intergenerational trauma
Last but not least, intergenerational trauma is a huge, often unaddressed family problem that stems back through generations. According to Spinelli, if past generations experienced things like extreme poverty, racial trauma, sudden death, addiction, mental health issues, and so much more, all of that can be passed down through generations.
“If something has happened in the previous generation, and that family member never dealt with it, that fight-or-flight and what they went through seeps into the other family members,” Spinelli says.
How family issues affect us.
There are so many ways all of the aforementioned family issues can affect the members of that family, particularly children in their formative years of life. For example, “Children may start having behavioral issues, which then in return causes parents to get upset and the kids act out more,” Nu?ez explains. And that’s just one more immediate example.
Our childhood experiences play out in adulthood through attachment wounds, as we bring those dysfunctional patterns into our adult relationships, she adds. “Let’s say a parent leaves at a developmental age where a child needs a parent, for example. That brings up abandonment issues,” she notes.
Overall, a significant number of unaddressed family issues can make people feel that they don’t have true safety in their lives, Spinelli says. “It’s going to lead into attachment issues. Maybe they’ve dealt with abuse, neglect, abandonment, which has created an insecure attachment. They may also become an avoidant because they’ve never been modeled unconditional love by their primary caregiver,” she explains.
Signs of family issues:
Frequent fights or bickering
Frequent yelling and screaming
An absent parent or parents (physically and/or emotionally)
Abuse of any kind (physical, emotional, and/or verbal abuse)
Codependent behavior and/or enmeshment
Struggles around finances or employment
Perfectionism or high standards within the family
Disagreements on household chores, parenting styles, etc.
Tension in the household for no clear reason
Difficulty trusting family members
What to do if you’re dealing with family issues:
1. Identify what the specific issue is.
If you’re getting the sense that you’re dealing with some family dysfunction, the first thing you’ll want to do is get clear on what specifically you’re dealing with. Is it controlling parents? Scheduling conflicts? Lack of communication?
Whatever the issue, Nu?ez and Spinelli both note recognizing it is the first step. From there, you can begin processing how you want to bring it up to your family members, which brings us to our next point.
2. Talk about it.
Nothing gets solved by sweeping it under the rug, and family issues are no exception. Nu?ez and Spinelli both say you’ll want to address any issues weighing on your mind, even if it’s not easy.
“Give yourself permission to say ‘Hey, I feel angry or resentful, and I need to talk about this,'” Spinelli says. And as Nu?ez notes, you can soften the blow using language that’s not directed at them, opting for “I” statements, rather than “you” statements (i.e., “I feel sad when you miss dinner,” instead of “You always miss dinner; you’re so inconsiderate.”)
Nu?ez also adds that it’s a good idea to pick a low-stress time when you can give each other your undivided attention and energy. (So, probably not around the holidays.)
3. Consider seeking professional help.
Once you’ve aired out some of your concerns, it may be necessary to ask for the help of a professional. Whether you opt for individual therapy, couples’ therapy, or family therapy is up to you and your family, but any of them can certainly help in understanding how family problems have affected you–and how to deal with them.
“And even if a family doesn’t go to therapy, it’s important for every person to feel like they have a voice in their family, and to speak up, and to really voice what they need within that unit,” Nu?ez says.
4. Set boundaries.
And last but certainly not least, when all else fails, boundaries with family are a necessity in keeping a family dynamic as healthy as possible for everyone. “Really think about the ways you can set boundaries and give yourself permission,” Spinelli says.
Whether you opt out of going to every family gathering, keep your distance from family members who make you uncomfortable or angry, or simply tell a family member when their behavior is unacceptable to you, Spinelli says you’re completely in your right to do so.
The bottom line.
No family is without a little dysfunction. After all, it was spiritual icon Ram Dass who once said, “‘If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.”
But no matter how many problems your family seems to be facing, all it takes is one of you to identify the problems at hand, work through them, and break the chain for future generations.