Family problems can manifest in the healthiest of families, resulting in challenging, frustrating, and painful interactions among family members. From little irritations to buried resentments, from dramatic arguments to feelings of guilt, disappointment, and anger we did not even know we had, our families often bring up the most intense emotions we experience, for better or worse.
Ideally, our families are those whom we can always rely on for support, from whom we draw strength and feedback, for whom we feel love and concern, and with whom we feel close and comfortable, openly sharing thoughts and feelings. In reality, few families meet this expectation 100% of the time, and in some cases, a person’s family is far from ideal, associated instead with stress, misunderstanding, anger, disconnection, and unmet needs. From our family of origin, we develop our expectations of others, communication skills, outlook on life, ability to give and receive love, and coping skills, among myriad other traits, and chronic family problems can have lasting effects.
Family problems from mild to severe will challenge every family at some point. These can result from behavioral and mental health issues in the family or from specific stressful events. Common family problems include:
- Financial issues
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- Substance abuse
- Behavioral issues and academic concerns in children and adolescents
- Mental health concerns
- Separation, divorce, or blended family adjustments
- Chronic illness
Whatever the source, distressing family dynamics can greatly interfere with the functioning of every family member, including extended family, although those living in the same household are likely to be impacted more significantly than those who live apart. When family members do not get along, the tension can impact each family member’s mental and physical health, relationships, and even his or her capacity for routine tasks. Evidence of family problems can materialize through repeated family conflicts, dramatic behavioral shifts in children and adolescents, mood swings and depression.
Fortunately, resolving family issues require the cooperation of everyone in the family, and this provides a great opportunity to strengthen family ties and interactions.
Family therapy is designed to help families collaborate to address family problems. The course of treatment is often brief, and most family therapy models seek to address the communication (verbal and nonverbal) styles of the family, as well as any individual issues that may be interfering with the cohesiveness of the family system. Family problems do not have to be severe to warrant therapy. Working with a therapist, families can expect to learn to understand one another better, communicate more effectively, and work proactively to disrupt unhealthy patterns.
Marriage and family therapists may offer to see the family as a group in each session, or individual sessions may be provided to supplement the group sessions. Most forms of family therapy fall under the umbrella of family systems therapy, though there are a number of treatment modalities suitable to addressing family concerns.
Ideally, family problems are addressed as they surface, but many times family problems are not handled in a timely fashion and sometimes not at all; instead, issues surrounding an event or family pattern may surface for family members later in life. Family-of-origin concerns are frequently addressed as part of individual therapy, whether the person enters therapy expressly for that purpose or for other concerns.
- Troubled teen: The Jay family brings their daughter, Amelia, 13, in for therapy due to her “anger problem.” In session with her parents, as the parents discuss Amelia’s poor behavior, Amelia is by turns withdrawn and sullen, then suddenly talkative, sarcastic, and silly. Alone with the therapist in the second session, she is quiet and sad, but more direct and focused. The therapist begins family sessions again, this time asking that Amelia’s younger brother attend as well and concentrating on communication patterns between the members of the family. Although the parents insist Amelia is the reason for their visit, with their young son in session Amelia is sweet and attends to him while the parent seem to have little to say to one another and barely make eye contact. The therapist is able to point this out to them privately, and soon begins couples therapy with them, seeing Amelia separately and not discussing her anger with her unless she brings it up, which she doesn’t. After two or three months, the family is getting along much better, and the parents have identified several areas of their marriage to work on in therapy.
- Adult sibling conflict: John, 47, seeks help to deal with his conflict with his adult siblings and parents. They seem to fight constantly whenever they are together, and his parents call him daily to “criticize” and “put me down.” The therapist takes a history and finds John’s family has always functioned somewhat like this, and informs John that there isn’t anything the therapist can do to change John’s family, but that she is willing to help John learn how better to deal with his family and the emotions John feels. John agrees to this, and the therapist works with him on communicating, self-care skills (such as eating right, relaxation meditation, and positive internal messages), and boundary-setting.