• There is nothing quite like family – strong connections that can often create the most challenging relationships

  • Therapist Joshua Miles explores family issues and dynamics

  • If difficulties with your family are at the root of your personal difficulties, find a therapist to talk to here 

Family life influences and informs us, from the beginning of our lives, to the end. All families go through changes, experience difficulties or ruptures. It is quite normal to experience issues within a family, and also to struggle in managing these.

Family dynamics impact our development and how we see ourselves in later life, influence the relationships we form, how we interact with the world and how we behave and interact with others.

Given the dynamic quality of any family, each one will operate differently, contain its own culture, rules, beliefs and values. The familial culture, rules or experiences we witness stay with us, and can lead us to view how other families operate as strange or difficult to understand.

Indeed, the word family is a single word with many complex and multiple meanings. It holds within it a wide range of feelings, thoughts and ideas. Even where there may been little contact with a family or if contact and connection ceased after a rupture or argument recently or historically, we will have all been influenced by the dynamics we experienced in our early lives.

A variety of factors can impact the relationships we have with members of our families. Indeed, these life stresses and experiences can leave lasting impressions on us. At times, familial stresses can feel immense, and overwhelm a family, making it feel as if there is no way forward.

Roles and responsibilities

It is not uncommon for issues, difficulties or pain to be absorbed by the family, or lodged in one individual particularly. Often, different family members are assigned roles (whether they choose these or not). For example, the eldest may be known as the strong one, the youngest as the emotional one, a parent as stoic or grandparent as resilient. Whatever role we choose or are assigned, it will have an impact on us, and can often feel difficult to resign or respond to.

What are family issues?

A family is often considered for many as a source of support, care and love; however this is not always the case for us all, and often family life is far from perfect. It may not be that difficulties are constant, but it is common that problems emerge periodically.

You might be a parent or carer worried about your child or be concerned about the impact a separation or divorce might have on you, your family and your children. Perhaps your parents have remarried or found new relationships, and you now have stepsiblings or stepparents that you struggle to get to know or to find your place in a new familial dynamic. Maybe you are arguing with your siblings or with your parents and find it difficult to communicate with them effectively.

As stated above, all families will have different cultures, therefore their experiences and difficulties will differ. Below is a list of some common family issues. This list is not exhaustive, and is meant as an example only -

  • Financial difficulties arising through debt, bankruptcy or redundancy
  • A change to the familial structure due to death or illness
  • Difficult behaviours with teenagers or older children
  • Feeling of loss when children leave home
  • An unwanted pregnancy or abortion
  • Discovery of an infidelity or affair

It is useful to note that there will be a myriad of issues or experiences causing difficulties, and that it might not always be possible to fix or stop these. However, what is possible, is to find a way to adjust our thinking, feelings or attitudes, and look for solutions or responses that may make these familial strains and pressures easier to manage.

Managing family issues

It can be very difficult to manage family issues, particularly so if relationships are strained. It can be helpful to talk about these difficulties with someone you trust and feel comfortable sharing things with, perhaps your partner, close friend or a family member with whom you have a good relationship. Talking about difficulties allows space to identify the challenges faced by your family, and to address and understand these problems, and to consider the next steps you might take.

How psychotherapy can help

There are several talking therapy options available if you are experiencing familial difficulties, including family therapy, couples counselling or individual psychotherapy. The difficulty in resolving issues within families can stem from the closeness, history and shared familial experiences, as well as the lack of impartiality. Psychotherapy offers you the chance to explore your thoughts, feelings and experiences in an impartial and non-judgemental way, and allows for all opinions to be heard and valued, and provides a space to plan, think and negotiate difficulties together.

The inevitable love, passion, loyalty or betrayals inherent to family life can have significant and lasting psychological and emotional effects on us. Whether we choose to remain close to our family or feel as though being less connected would be better for us, the relationships we have with our family have the power and influence to shape and inform us in ways that other relationships do not.

As we go through life, we find family, or familial feelings, elsewhere, such as in close friendships, through school or university, and through our work. We build connections, find common ground, and relate to others with meaning and depth.

However we decide to define the word family and what it means for us, it is certain to contain complex feelings, experiences and emotions. The joy, and conversely, the pain of family life, is indeed found within this complexity, and is what makes family life so painful, difficult and upsetting, as well as unique, meaningful and interesting.

Joshua Miles is a verified welldoing.org therapist in EC2 & E5, London 


Further reading

Meet the therapist: Joshua Miles 

7 ways to avoid falling out with your family

6 ways to organise family life

How I overcame my family history with therapy

Family constellations: the invisible ties that bind us

What does our position in the family mean?