Family dynamics and the roles we play

Family dynamics are the patterns and interactions we have with different members of our family. Each family has a unique set of dynamics, which will impact our development, ideas, and ways of behaving as well as how we interact with others.


What are family dynamics?

The word family is a single word with multiple meanings. It represents many different things, and holds within it a wide range of feelings, thoughts and ideas. Even where there has been little contact with a family, we will have all been influenced by the dynamics we experienced in our early lives.

Our family dynamics impact on how we see ourselves in later life, influence our relationships, how we interact with the world as well as our well-being. However we personally define family, it is inherent that there will be complex feelings and issues held within the relationships in our familial circle.

A brief explanation of family systems theory

Traditional individual talking therapies often focus on issues and problems within a linear fashion, meaning that ‘event’ A caused ‘problem’ B. Talking therapies explore the historic facts, feelings and ideas relating to an issue, so as to gain an understanding of what caused the problem, and identify what may be needed in order for the person to move forward and progress.

Family systems theory, however, views issues and problems within a circular fashion, using what is described as a systemic perspective. Meaning that the event and the problem exist within the context of the relationship, where both influence the other. Family systems theory aims to assess these patterns of interactions, and look at why things may be happening, instead of why they happened.

Family systems theory considers the nature of relationships to be bidirectional and moves away from seeking blame of one person for the dynamic of the relationship. The exception to this theory is within abusive relationships, where the responsibility and blame lay clearly with the perpetrator of the abuse.

Within family systems theory, behaviours are believed to arise due to the interrelated nature and connectedness of various family members. For example, to seek understanding of a young person in distress, their behaviour would be viewed through the lens of their family’s behaviours and the family system rather than looking at the young person in isolation.

What influences our family dynamics?

The influences of family dynamics will, of course, vary from family to family, and will often include previous generations, as well as the current living generations. Socio economic factors, class, culture and geographic location will also play key roles in how family dynamics are established, maintained and also fractured. Below are some common factors that may influence the development of family dynamics.

  • The nature of your parent’s relationship.

  • A parent who was absent for a period of your life.

  • A mix of different family members, such as aunts, uncles or cousins, living under the same roof.

  • External events which affected the family such as severe illness, trauma, death, unemployment or homelessness.

  • Dynamics of previous generations.

  • Whether you had a parent who was particularly soft, or strict.

  • Number of children in your family.

  • Personalities of the members of your family.

Roles within family dynamics

Within the dynamics of a family, we all have different roles and functions. These various roles can come about because of how our family dynamics play out, or due to our own individual choices, and personalities. The way we choose to interact and the characters we sometimes play can be a conscious choice, and can also happen unconsciously. Some of the different roles we find ourselves playing within a family dynamic are listed below.

Peacekeeper - this role can often unintentionally be played by young people or children. They may often mediate, or reduce conflict between parents who are arguing or experiencing conflict. The peacekeeper seeks to reduce tension, alleviate discourse and move the family back into a more harmonious dynamic. The role of the peacekeeper can occur due to unresolved and unconscious anxiety, fear or worry about a potential family breakdown. Young people or children within this role can often find themselves remaining as the child within their family rather than moving towards behaving appropriately for their age.

The Scapegoat - often one family member, who experiences difficulties, is seen as the black sheep of the family while other members are viewed as good or well behaved. This person can become a visible symptom of the troubled family system. For example, one child being labelled as mentally ill, even though their behaviour is adaptive and a means of survival to deal with and live within a fractured or troubled family system. When we use family systems theory to examine an example like the one listed above, we can see that this member of the family could be supported by others to manage and cope in ways which were less detrimental.

The problem as the role - a family member with a problem or issue, may play the role in drawing attention away from much deeper issues within the family and provide the family dynamic with distraction. This distraction serves as a way to provide an illusion of harmony, and parents in a family dynamic such as this, may reinforce the apparent bad behaviour of a child so as to avoid addressing their own relationship difficulties and keep the family together.

Our family systems are unique, fragile and fluid. Understanding our position within not only our system but within the wider community, can provide us with a deeper and more enriched way of looking at our interactions with others, as well as how we view and treat ourselves.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London N6 & NW5
Written by Joshua Miles, BA, MSc, BPC, BACP Accredited Psychodynamic Psychotherapist
London N6 & NW5

Joshua is an experienced Integrative Therapist who's worked with people to explore how they've been influenced by their family dynamics & assisted people in gaining deeper understanding of how they fit within a family structure. He also works with issues such as loneliness, bereavement, depression, stress and anxiety. He's based in Shoreditch.

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