We are products of the people who raised us. Our families play a pivotal role in our thoughts, behaviors, and personalities. Understanding your family dynamic helps you build insight into your patterns with yourself and others. It also teaches you about your morals and values.
What Impacts The Family Dynamic?
Many different variables affect how a family relates and engages with one another. These variables often make the difference between a healthy family and a toxic family and are known to be passed down intergenerationally, which means your parents learned it from their parents and so on.
Some common influences include:
- Quality of the relationship between both parents
- Influence of other relatives or friends involved in family decisions
- Attachment bonds between parents and children
- Closeness and connectivity between siblings
- Sociopolitical stressors related to finances, employment, and housing
- Parental attitudes and approaches to parenting
- Presence of mental health or medical concerns within the family
- Ruptures or estrangement amongst family members
- Severe changes to the family system (divorce, death, adding a new child)
- Multicultural considerations related race, religion, and gender
Families thrive in homeostasis – the state of usual balance and order. When something jeopardizes the usual status quo, family members often resist the change and work hard to revert to a sense of familiarity.
Keep in mind that even the definition of ‘family’ may differ depending on who you ask. To some people, their family refers to their family-of-origin, which relates to the people in their childhood household. Others may define family as their current household- their partner, kids, roommates, animals, etc.
Finally, some people have a more fluid definition- family can mean anyone they love, which doesn’t limit them to blood relatives.
Growing Up Secure: What Parents Need To Offer Their Children
Securely-attached people grow up feeling loved, supported, and encouraged to be themselves. When they face issues in life, they tend to embrace independent problem-solving skills. At the same time, they know they can lean on their support if they need additional help.
Secure attachment starts in infancy, and it is reinforced throughout childhood. These babies inherently tend to have an advantage in life. Their parents give them the emotional tools they need to succeed as adults.
Parenting isn’t just about providing food, shelter, and clothing. It’s about how a parent chooses to relate, engage, and care for their child. While this process cannot be perfect (because nothing is!), parents who consciously try to instill healthy self-esteem in their children find that their children often embrace the concept of self-love, self-worth, and self-respect.
Validation refers to affirming someone’s feelings or experiences. When a parent validates their child, they convey that their feelings are valid and real. This doesn’t mean they necessarily condone negative behavior. It means they understand what might be driving that choice.
When people feel validated, they feel more support and less shame. They are more likely to want to open up to others because they know they won’t be judged.
It’s so crucial for children to feel special and important. Both verbal and physical affection convey love, and children need this affirmation regularly.
In healthy systems, families show affection through praise, expressions of love, hugs, kisses, or cuddles. This affection isn’t just tied to external achievements- it’s an inherent part of being a family member.
Children need a sense of structure and stability within the home. They thrive when they have a predictable and consistent routine. Additionally, they need to know the parental expectations, and those expectations should be clear, firm, and appropriate.
In unhealthy systems, boundaries can often be too weak or too rigid. When the boundaries are weak, the rules seem to change frequently. The child doesn’t know what to expect, and they don’t know what their limits are. When the boundaries are too strict, the child often feels stifled and trapped. They don’t have the opportunity to explore their independence or enjoy their youth.
Children want to play, interact, and bond with their parents. During the younger years, their parents are their entire worlds. They depend on them for survival, entertainment, and everything in between.
But the need for quality time doesn’t disappear once adolescence emerges. Even the moodiest of teenagers often want to hang out with their parents, even if hanging out means chatting in the car or eating dinner together. Offering plenty of opportunities for quality time increases closeness, and it helps children feel more supported by their parents.
The Role of Healthy Communication in Family Dynamics
Healthy communication is a key tenant in any healthy relationship. But healthy communication isn’t always easy, and many people struggle with this skill in everyday life.
Respect underlies the foundation of healthy communication. Respect means admiring someone else and treating them well. It doesn’t mean you have to like what they say or what they do, but it does mean you give them a sense of compassion and kindness.
People need to respect the person they are talking to, which applies even if they disagree on specific topics. Without respect, the conversation can quickly become hostile and counterintuitive.
When people respect one another, they engage in active listening. That means giving someone else your full, undivided attention. There are no distractions. Instead of listening with the intent of talk, people choose to listen with the intent of learning and connecting.
Active listening is a skill that often takes conscious practice and effort. It’s important to work on this skill if you value having meaningful relationships.
Empathy means doing your best to imagine how you would feel in someone else’s position. This isn’t the same as sympathy, which is feeling sorry or sad for someone else.
Instead, empathy refers to aiming to understand another person’s worldview. The more empathy you practice, the more patient and respectful you tend to be.
Everyone can’t agree on the same things all the time. But in healthy family systems, people try to find a middle ground with one another. This compromise tends to become an effortless part of the relationship.
Compromise is not about keeping score or holding grudges. When that happens, it’s usually because things feel one-sided, making the situation seem unfair. Instead, it’s about honoring each person’s needs and prioritizing them in a way that makes sense for everyone.
The Role of Unhealthy Communication in Family Dynamics
Unfortunately, many people use unhealthy communication strategies to express their needs. They may not be aware of their patterns.
People tend to resort to less-effective communication during times of stress. Generally speaking, people want to feel important, and they want their needs to matter. If they don’t believe healthy communication will achieve this, they will use a different tactic.
Aggressive communication refers to using threats, criticism, or other demeaning strategies to meet one’s needs. Anyone can be aggressive, but this trait becomes especially toxic when one of the parents embodies it.
Many times, the aggressive family member holds disproportionate power and control within the system. Others feel afraid of bothering them- they don’t want to get hurt or land themselves in trouble. As a result, they will concede, cower, or even lie to avoid placing themselves in the aggressor’s wrath.
Have you ever told someone, “I’m fine,” when you were clearly not fine? If so, you acted passive-aggressively. Many of us occasionally resort to passive-aggression, but some people use it whenever they feel angry or upset.
Passive-aggression often triggers confusion for other people. After all, you’re saying one thing and meaning the other. It can also cause resentment. They know that you’re lying, but because you insist that you’re not lying, they may feel disrespected and frustrated.
Passive communication refers to subduing your own needs for the sake of someone else’s. People who use passive communication often identify as people-pleasers; they are more concerned about everyone else’s happiness that they are willing to sacrifice having an opinion themselves.
Passive communication can quickly become annoying and exhausting. Loved ones often feel guilty about the person’s behavior (they want them to make a decision every once in a while!), and they may start to lose respect for them as an individual.
SIlent treatment refers to cutting all communication, usually after a conflict. Depending on the person, the silent treatment may last anywhere from a few hours to several days.
This strategy can be incredibly painful for loved ones. Moreover, it only delays resolving conflict and can create more issues associated with resentment and annoyance.
How Stress Impacts Family Dynamics
A geographical move. A new pregnancy. A shocking job lay-off. Any of these stressors can cause significant rifts in even a healthy family dynamic. And if the family dynamic is already compromised, these issues may exacerbate issues tenfold.
Stress is an inevitable part of life, but many families feel unequipped to deal with its aftermath. Instead, members may react in various ways, including:
- Isolating from one another
- Spending more time in escape behaviors (drinking, using drugs, overeating, video games, using the Internet, etc.)
- Spending less time at home or with family
- Neglecting individual self-care
- Disregarding important rules or boundaries
Engaging in these patterns occasionally isn’t a cause for concern. We are all human, and we all experience setbacks. But if this becomes a chronic issue, it can create ongoing problems within the individual and the entire system.
Additionally, family systems inherently change. Life is never stagnant- people die, people leave relationships, new people are born. Each family must learn how to adapt to these changes. The more they can try to come together, the more resilient the system becomes.
Adjusting to new family dynamics can be a challenge. Many new couples experience this obstacle first-hand when they decide to live together, get married, or start a family. Suddenly, they realize just how different their upbringings may have been. They might disagree on fundamental core values, causing them to argue more frequently.
New families need to work together to try to anticipate these changes. You may need to engage in serious, ongoing conversations about meshing your values, compromising, and openly expressing your needs.
How Intimacy and Closeness Impacts Family Dynamics
It’s no secret that some families are incredibly open. They tell each other everything, see each other often, and it’s implied that any news that happens to someone will be shared with everyone else.
This is one end of the closeness spectrum, but it has its downsides. All family members need a sense of privacy, and it’s rarely useful to know everyone’s business. Moreover, these kinds of families can be intimidating for new friends or partners. They may resent feeling interrogated when meeting everyone. Nobody likes feeling like the rest of the world knows their innermost secrets.
Families on the other end of the spectrum tend to be distant and withdrawn from one another. A sibling might not know another sibling’s birthday. A parent may have no idea who her child’s friends are. A grandparent may only see their family once every few years.
This emotional distance can be due to unresolved tension or conflict. It can also be a function of fearing intimacy or closeness, especially if one of the family members has experienced severe betrayal in the past.
In healthy systems, families aim to strike a balance. There is a sense of closeness, but boundaries also exist. People often feel safe telling each other vulnerable content. Yet, they also know when to draw the line of revealing too much.
Every family is different, and family dynamics uniquely shape behaviors, values, and subsequent relationships. It’s essential to have an open mind when examining your own upbringing and current family relationships. Remember there are no perfect systems.
By focusing on what you can control (and identifying what you can’t), you can leave a meaningful life regardless of your family dynamics. As an adult, you decide the role you want to have in your family. You also choose what kinds of messages and patterns you want to pass down to the next generation.