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Family Relationship Difficulties

Family dynamics are different in every family, and sometimes managing relationships between individuals in families can be difficult. Couples can find it difficult to get along. Parents can disagree about how to parent their children. Parents can have problems managing their children’s behaviour. Individuals can develop problems that impact the whole family. Difficulties within family relationships can arise for different reasons, such as having problems with communication, going through the stages of the Family Life Cycle, or because of external factors outside of the family.

Communication Difficulties

Communication is important in any relationship as it enables the members to express their needs, wants, and concerns to each other [1]. In relationships, we can communicate verbally, using words to convey what we mean, but we can also use nonverbal communication, for example through tone of voice, facial expressions and body language [2]. While we are always communicating with each other in one way or another, it is not uncommon for some relationships to be negatively affected by problems with communication. Some indicators of communication problems in a family relationship include:

● Constantly criticising one another

● Engaging in passive-aggressive behaviours

● Getting defensive

● Stonewalling, giving one another the silent treatment, or avoiding conversations

● Repeatedly having the same arguments or refusing to compromise

● Feeling unheard or misunderstood [3].

There are also more subtle signs and factors that may contribute to poor communication in a family relationship. Individual personalities within a family can contribute to the complex family dynamic; there may be conflicts in interests, for example disputes may be triggered by delegation of household chores, respecting boundaries, or sharing belongings. There may also be differences in the communication styles of each individual, where each person may react differently to a problem. One individual may react to tension, conflict, or disagreements with arguments and shouting, while another individual may resort to withdrawal and silent treatment. The latter may be a way of avoiding arguments for the sake of keeping peace, however withholding issues can also be an indicator of communication problems. Avoiding communication can prevent the opportunity for authentic, open and honest discussions, and can lead to redirection of negative emotions into other areas of life. Though it is common and natural for each person to have their own opinions, ideas, and responses to family difficulties, if they are not communicated in a healthy way, then the negative emotions can intensify and worsen, making it harder to resolve the issue.

Stages of the Family Life Cycle

The Family Life Cycle describes the developmental changes and common patterns that are seen between similar families in the same society [4]. It reflects the idea that families do not exist in isolation and that they must respond to both internal and external pressures [4].

The table below outlines the six stages of the Family Life Cycle:

The different transitions that occur in the stages of the Family Life Cycle can sometimes be difficult to manage and can create tension between members of the family. For example, parents of young children may find it hard to adjust to the responsibilities involved in caring for children or to mediate their different approaches to parenting their children. Meanwhile, parents of older children may struggle with adjusting to their children growing into adults and leaving home. There may also be unpredictable changes or transitions that occur within a family, such as early death, chronic disease, or accidents.

When transition points are not negotiated, stress levels may increase within the family. Change can impact the individual members of a family on an emotional, cognitive, and physical development level. This is because families must learn to rebalance, redefine, and realign their roles whenever internal/external stressors force them to do so. When a family struggles with a transition, it can lead to ‘symptoms’ such as anxiety, depression, behavioural issues, or disagreements [5].

External Factors

There are also a number of external or environmental factors that can contribute to the development of family relationship difficulties There may be one member of the family who is struggling with an issue that affects the rest of the family, such as a mental, neurological, or physical health problem. This can add strain to a family as the focus on the recovery and management of the illness may increase anxiety levels and take away from focus on other aspects of life that individuals may also deem as important [6]. Individual issues with addiction can also contribute to family relationship difficulties, as it can lead to behaviours such as lying, short-temperedness, or irresponsible spending, putting strain on both the individual and the people trying to support them [6].

Family relationship difficulties may arise due to occupational or financial problems, which have been found to increase stress and limit the amount of enjoyable activities within a household [6]. Some families may also experience difficulties related to trust or attachment issues. Negative experiences in previous relationships, for example with childhood caregivers or with partners in an earlier stage of the relationship, can shape perceptions of current relationships. This can lead to anxiety, scepticism and mistrust in adult relationships, or perceptions that current relationships will be negative. This can cause or worsen pre-existing problems within the internal relationships in a family as well as in the broader family dynamic.

Indicators and Treatments

Some common indications of family relationship problems include:

● Anger/ frustration

● Avoidance

● Arguments

● Rethinking/ ruminating over conversations

● Jealousy

● Spite

● Feeling lonely

● Feeling upset [6]

It is important to know that each person has the ability to learn how to cope with and manage difficult situations and disagreements, in order to find resolutions and improve family relationships. Different types of therapy can help with facilitating communication and easing tensions between members of the family. In families where the difficulties stem from problems between parents or a couple, it may be helpful to focus on this specific relationship through BCT or psychotherapy.

Behavioural Couples Therapy (BCT)

Behavioural Couples Therapy (BCT) is an evidence-based psychological treatment which is based on the principles of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) . This means there is a strong focus on the interplay between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. BCT gives couples the opportunity to learn skills for recognising the vicious cycles that maintain relationship distress, as well as some strategies to get out of these cycles [7]. It is a structured and goal-oriented therapy which can help with conflict reduction and resolution, improving communication, problem-solving, and joint decision making, managing emotions, changing behaviour, and encouraging acceptance [8].

Psychodynamic Psychotherapy

Psychodynamic psychotherapy is another type of therapy that can be useful in resolving family relationship difficulties. Psychodynamic therapy explores the potential historical causes for problematic thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that may be contributing to relationship difficulties. Investigating one another’s underlying hopes, fears, and motivations, can help a couple to understand each other better and overcome difficulties [9]. For example, a couple may look into the roots of their different attachment styles, and how this affects what they bring to the relationship and also what they need from it. This can help to uncover unhelpful patterns or areas of difficulty, perhaps where communication styles or emotional needs are misunderstood. From this understanding, couples are then able to learn how to adapt to each other and meet each other’s needs in order to resolve conflict.

Systemic Therapy or Family Therapy

In some families, difficulties may stem from one or more relationships within the family, in which case it can be helpful to seek therapy as a whole family. Systemic or family therapy is based on the idea that each family member is part of a system where individual behaviours do not occur in isolation, but that the behaviour of one member affects and is affected by the other members [10]. This type of therapy looks at the interactions between the members of a family, couple or group and gives everyone an equal opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings in a safe and non-judgemental space [11]. As each person speaks from their own experience, the group is encouraged to listen with curiosity, and to not judge, blame, or assign any perspectives as correct or incorrect. The purpose of this approach is to highlight patterns of interaction and communication that may be causing difficulties and to explore what changes can be made by each member of the party to help the group move on.

Here at Surrey Therapy Practice, we have a team of experienced professionals who are trained in a range of therapies that can help with family relationship difficulties. Many of our therapists take an integrative approach and can tailor their treatment plans to individual needs. If you think that you or someone you know may benefit from our services, get in touch and make an inquiry here.














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