Ask the experts: How can I navigate difficult family dynamics?

Family dynamics refer to the roles and interactions within the family unit. Our experiences strongly influence how we see the world around us, our behaviours and how we form relationships with others.

Two people with arms folded turned way from each other

Some people may experience a strong family dynamic that functions well. This might look like having open and honest communication with each other or having shared responsibilities. For others, the dynamic may be a little more complex. So how do we recognise when this is the case? Counsellor Nina Jellinek answers your questions, helping us to recognise difficult dynamics and how we can navigate them.

How to navigate difficult family dynamics

Can you tell us what family dynamics are and why they are important? 

Family dynamics refer to the ways in which family systems operate. It includes thinking about how family members relate both to each other individually and to the “family” as a whole. It also refers to the role each person plays in the family system. Individual relationships and roles can change over time, but the family system itself can show a tendency to resist change.

Our own family dynamics are our first introduction to how relationships work and how we are ‘supposed’ to feel or behave. So they exert a lot of influence over our experience of the world, including how other people are, and what they expect from us. Our family dynamics also may create beliefs about what we need to do to be seen as worthwhile. As we get older, we may repeat learned patterns from family behaviour or we may try to distance ourselves from them.

I can find it hard to form relationships. Could my family dynamics be affecting this? 

Family dynamics do tend to have a lot of influence on how we form later relationships. They give us our first examples of what relationships are like, as well as instil many beliefs around our capacity to be loved and to love others. This then impacts how we connect to other people, consciously or not. We might gravitate towards certain people because their style of interacting feels familiar, so we may repeat negative patterns of interaction because they feel ‘normal’ to us.  

If relationships in our families were difficult, we might fear repeating this in future relationships and be wary of being hurt or rejected. Even if the family dynamic was not negative as such, it might be that our style of thinking or behaving was different from others in the family and so we may not feel certain we can connect to others or be understood. 

How do I recognise that I’m caught up in a toxic family dynamic?

Sometimes, it can feel clear that a family dynamic is toxic, such as when people are acting abusively. But often it is more subtle. There may be family beliefs that have a negative impact, such as a rigid expectation of a person’s role which does not actually recognise their needs, or where there is pressure to accept family values over one’s own.

Situations may become harmful even when people have good intentions. For example, where people have changed, family patterns may persist which may become unhelpful. For instance, parents may find it difficult to accept the changes in their relationships with their children as they grow and need to become more independent. What was initially nurturing could become limiting if roles are expected to remain the same. When a family relationship repeatedly makes you feel stressed, it is worth considering what family dynamics might be operating.

What are your tips for dealing with difficult family relationships?

It is important to consider whether there is actually anything you can do to change a difficult family relationship. Family systems can be resistant to change, and you may not be able to get other people to act differently. If family won’t change, you are left with a decision as to whether you feel staying involved is good for your well-being. 

You do not owe it to family, or to anyone, to continue to interact in a relationship that is harmful to you. If you don’t feel you need to step out completely, you might need to be clear with yourself, and with your family, about your boundaries, and the limits of what you will accept. Whatever your choice, it is important to recognise how the family dynamics are affecting you in your life, so that you can make it less likely that this will be repeated in other relationships. 

This article was originally published in Happiful Magazine (Issue 78, 2023). You can order print copies online, or read the e-magazine for free on the Happiful app

Share this article with a friend
Written by Emily Whitton
Emily is a Content Creator & Marketing Coordinator at Happiful and a writer for Counselling Directory.
Written by Emily Whitton
Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Relationship problems

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals