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Child Psychiatrist /Adult Psychiatrist

Family dynamics can lift you up (or drag you down)

A family eating meal together.

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What are family dynamics?

6 types of family dynamics

Family dynamics and self-awareness

Examples of healthy family dynamics

How to step back from toxic family dynamics

For many of us, family is one of the most important aspects of our lives. Whether biological or chosen, it’s our family members that we rely on for support.

But like all relationships, there are dynamics at play.

Our family dynamics can significantly impact our mental health in both positive and negative ways. Because of this, it’s important to understand how your own family dynamics have shaped you.

Let’s explore some examples of healthy and less-healthy family dynamics (even toxic ones). Then, we’ll discuss how you can work on building positive family dynamics.

​What are family dynamics?

Family dynamics are the patterns of interactions between family members. These include roles, hierarchies, and communication between family members. Family dynamics are how members of a family interact with each other in relation to their individual goals and preferences.

Our family dynamics can strongly influence how we see ourselves, others, and the world around us. Plus, they influence our behaviors, well-being, and work relationships. Our families are where we first learn to relate to others.

But family isn't destiny. Once we become aware of how our family influences us, we can have more control over whether those dynamics shape our perceptions and actions.

The dynamics in our families aren't limited to current, living generations. They also include previous generations, as we still feel the effects of some of their traditions, structures, and habits.

A mother teaching her son about cooking.

To better understand the meaning of family dynamics, we need to dig a little deeper. Various factors influence our family dynamics, including:

  • Family members’ ages

  • Family members’ personalities

  • The relationship between the parents of a family

  • A parent who is relaxed or strict

  • An absent parent

  • Intergenerational homes

  • The job requirements of working parents

  • A family member with a disability or chronic illness

  • Issues such as substance use or abusive relationships

  • Parent and grandparent family dynamics

  • Events such as divorce, affairs, trauma, grief, or unemployment and resulting job search depression

  • Secure or insecure family attachments

  • Culture, ethnicity, and family values about gender roles and responsibilities

  • Family members’ power or status

  • Type and level of influence from family members

6 types of family dynamics

Various types of dynamics are present within each family system. They dictate how a family functions and the power roles parents and siblings play.

Let’s take a closer look at six types of family dynamics:

1. Authoritarian

Authoritarian dynamics can be summed up as being all about following the rules without any exceptions. In this family dynamic, one family member is very controlling. They expect others to follow them without negotiation or questioning.

Other family members aren’t allowed to be involved in solving challenges and problems or to share their opinions. Failure to adhere to the rules is usually met with punishment rather than constructive feedback.

For example, the head of the household sets the rules for when everyone in the family must be home for dinner. If anyone is late, they are met with aggression and punishment.

2. Authoritative

Authoritative dynamics also involve rules and consequences, but not in the same way as authoritarian dynamics. One individual sets the rules while validating other family members’ feelings and respecting their opinions.

The authoritative family member stays in charge. They use positive discipline such as reward systems and praise to reinforce good behavior. They don't use threatening punishment for disobeying the rules.

Let’s look at an example of a nuclear family with an authoritative family dynamic. The parents set clear household rules for their children, and explain the reasons behind their rules. Rather than saying, “Eat your vegetables because I said so,” they say, “Eat your vegetables so you can help your body and your brain grow.”

3. Competitive

With competitive family dynamics, family members are continuously competing with one another. There is a sense of rivalry within the household, as members try to outshine their relatives. This competition could be for many things, such as attention, recognition, or power.

Competitive dynamics can take place between siblings when parents encourage their children to challenge each other. Another example is spouses competing over their professional achievements, whether that’s promotions, raises, or who has the highest salary.

4. Uninvolved

When uninvolved dynamics are present, family members aren’t present to one another, even when they’re in the same room. Individuals don’t really know what the other members of the family are doing. There is often a lack of support and guidance.

As an example, one person in a marriage may be totally disinterested in their spouse’s life. Rather than asking their partner how their day was or supporting them in times of need, they are dismissive and neglectful.

5. Communal

The presence of communal dynamics emphasizes the family as a community in which every member makes a contribution. Individual opinions are respected, and all voices are heard.

A family picture eating their meal together.

In a communal family structure, tasks are shared, and everyone helps set rules and solve problems and challenges. All family members are encouraged to actively participate in making decisions and setting rules.

6. Alliance-based

Alliance-based dynamics lead to members of the family grouping together and playing off each other. Certain family members form alliances in order to gain leverage over other members of the family. They agree to work together for mutual interest. This agreement can be explicit or implied.

For example, in a step family, biological siblings may form alliances against their step-siblings. Or a child may form an alliance with one parent and pit them against the other parent or their siblings.

Family dynamics and self-awareness

The family dynamics of our childhood, as well as our current family dynamics, can impact our behavior, relationships, and work. One of the reasons for this is that those dynamics can trigger various emotions. In some cases, it can lead to emotional labor.

Those emotions can also be triggered if we find ourselves in situations with similar dynamics to what we experience in our family units. Self-awareness is a key element in understanding how our family roles impact us and our work. Many of us are unaware of how those dynamics affect our emotional well-being.

Writing for Harvard Business Review, Roger Jones explained that early family life can affect leaders in various ways.

A man thinking and writing his thoughts to his notebook and check on the Internet using Laptop.

For example, those early dynamics can affect leaders’ reactions to team members who vie for attention. It can also impact their relationships with people who report to them and how they respond to pressure.

Sometimes, we subconsciously redirect our feelings from childhood onto someone years later. This is known as transference, and it can be positive or negative. For example, a manager or supervisor may remind a team member of a parental figure. The team member is likely to respond to the manager in the same way they responded to their parents.

A lack of self-awareness makes it difficult to recognize and respond to the impact of family dynamics. Jones writes that some people who are vaguely aware of their issues might consider them as personality traits they cannot change. Others might ignore their issues completely because they are afraid of looking weak.

Self-awareness offers insights into how our family influences our styles of communication and relationships. When we recognize the impact of our family dynamics on our behavior, we can work at changing traits we thought of as unchangeable.

Our own self-awareness can also help us recognize when our team members and managers are acting out their own family dynamics. This can change and improve the way our teams and we perform.

You can't always change your family dynamics, as they were in the past. But you can work with professional support to understand how they affected you. From here, you can reframe how you understand and interpret them in the present.

You also can't change other family members and how they act. But you can alter family dynamics by addressing your own role in your close family and choosing different behaviors or responses. You have individual agency to move forward and make empowering decisions.

Examples of healthy family dynamics

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common characteristics of healthy family dynamics:

Open communication

Each member of the family should be encouraged to speak for themselves, rather than there being one person whose word is the law. There should be open communication rather than one person acting as an interpreter or message carrier.

Emotional support

Emotional support is when everyone is allowed to communicate their anxieties, fears, and sorrows. Emotional support also enhances each family member’s ability to care for themselves.

A man kisses his wife.

For example, a child who is being bullied at school feels comfortable enough to tell their family what is happening. Or an individual who has just been laid off feels comfortable asking their partner for help in looking for a new job.

Shared responsibility and authority

Shared responsibility and authority mean one or both parents aren’t responsible for everything. They also are not the only ones involved in making decisions.

The hallmarks of shared power and responsibility include respect and inclusivity. It also means creating opportunities for children or other family members to lead.

For example, parents ask their children for input when discussing the chores list or the destination for the next family vacation. Or both husband and wife share the responsibility of preparing the house for Christmas so as to avoid holiday stress.

Balance between work and family

A lack of balance between work and family can be a source of conflict within the family and at work. Greater balance between the two can diminish conflict and lead to healthy relationships in both areas.

For example, one of the parents in a nuclear family might spend too much time dealing with work responsibilities. Their partner and children may take on more responsibilities at home. This could lead to tension between the parents and children.

Expressing interest in each other’s lives

By taking an interest in each other’s lives, family members make each other feel valued and included.

For example, family members ask each other about their day when they eat dinner together, and they support each other’s important events. If a child is participating in a school play, all family members attend a show.

Providing support and discipline to children

This characteristic of healthy family dynamics sees parents taking an active role in the children’s lives. The key to this is to be loving, but also to provide a structure that supports the children’s well-being.

A mother carrying her daughter.

Parents should discipline children in a positive way by replacing punishments that frighten them with strategies that encourage better behavior. For example, instead of demanding them to brush their teeth, use encouraging language. “I know you don’t want to brush your teeth, but we can do it together.”

Shared respect

Allowing everyone to have a voice is an important part of family dynamics. In this family culture of mutual respect, constructive conflict is embraced.

If conflict does arise, family members work to resolve it rather than punishing those whose opinions differ.

Creating a safe, loving environment

A safe and loving environment is one in which parents set good examples, stay positive and display affection. These family dynamics help members nurture relationships and build strong human connections.

How to step back from toxic family dynamics

Some family dynamics are toxic and can deeply affect your emotional and mental well-being. Ways to step back from dysfunctional family dynamics include:

1. Setting boundaries in your family relationships

Some behaviors are not acceptable within a family. You need to set boundaries that let family members know which behaviors are not acceptable.

The key to setting boundaries is to be firm but kind. Listen to what your family members have to say, but seek to take care of yourself.

2. Expressing your concerns

Each family member should communicate their feelings about the family dynamics. They also should offer possible solutions. Everyone should be able to express their feelings without being criticized or interrupted by other members.

3. Practicing self-care

According to Laurel Daly, toxic family dynamics can place stress on you in various ways. Toxic family members may ignore your emotions, insult you, or gossip about you.

The negative effect on your self-esteem could lead to you forgetting about self-care. One element of a self-care plan is taking time out for yourself, so you can do things that make you feel good about yourself. Another element of self-care is to identify and deal with toxic family members.

4. Seeking professional help

Dealing with toxic family dynamics isn’t easy. You may experience feelings of guilt or shame. Or you may avoid dealing with confronting members of your family in an effort to keep the peace.

A man and woman holding hands together.

You might not know where to begin. Seeking professional help from a counselor or family therapist can provide you with the support you need to take those first steps. In this sense, seeking family therapy is a form of self-care.

5. Developing your emotional regulation skills

Toxic family dynamics can affect our emotional regulation skills. Reacting impulsively to emotions at work that mimic toxic family dynamics is one example.

Emotional regulation involves regulating your actions and responses triggered by emotions. You can develop your skills through self-awareness, mindful breathing, and self-compassion.

6. Determining the root of toxic behavior

Identifying toxic behaviors and communicating your concerns about them isn’t enough. You should try to determine the root of those behaviors, too. Some toxic behaviors that affect family dynamics exist because no one sets any boundaries.

Other behaviors may be a result of mental health concerns. Identifying the root of that behavior could lead to positive changes.

Understand your family dynamics

Positive or negative, your family dynamics and the way you grew up can affect your life in various ways.

If your childhood experience had toxic family dynamics, your overall well-being could suffer. Your behavior, relationships, and work performance can be affected as those dynamics resurface. If your experience was one of positive dynamics, the influence on your adult life should be positive.

For many of us, our family dynamics include both positive and negative elements. Understanding past and present family dynamics is an essential part of personal transformation.

Let our professional BetterUp coaches support you on that journey – get started today.

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