Family dynamics are the patterns of relationships, or interactions, between family members. Each family system and its dynamics are different, although there are some common patterns. All families have some helpful and some unhelpful dynamics that influences our well-being, socially and psychologically.
What Is Family Dynamics?
It is defined by the relationship and interaction pattern each individual maintains in his/her family with different members of our family. Mind Journal says, ”family dynamics applies to the patterns of interactions that prevail among relatives, the roles and relationships, and the various constituents that shape such interactions”. Since in a family, different individuals depend on each other for emotional, physical, and economic support, they are one of the prime sources of relationship security or stress. Secure and supportive family relationships are defined by love, advice, and care, whereas stressful family relationships are troubled with arguments, excessive demands, toxic communication, and constant critical feedback. Each family consists of a unique set of dynamics, which impacts our psychological development, beliefs, and ways of behaving as well as determining our interaction pattern with others.
Research 1 indicates that interpersonal interactions among family members leave a permanent impact that determines the development and well-being of an individual via psychosocial, behavioral, and physiological pathways. Thus, family dynamics and the quality of family relationships can have either a positive or negative impact on health. In other words, poor relations in a family can damage an individual’s physical and mental health. Thus, when a child experiences depression, the therapist studies dynamics of the family to get to the root cause of the problem.
Understanding Family Dynamics
The word family, even though a single word, has multiple meanings. The word represents various aspects of life along with holding a wide range of feelings, thoughts, and ideas. Even in cases where there has been very little interaction with the family, individuals will be influenced by the dynamics that they had experienced in their early lives. It determines the functioning of a family in good and bad situations. It also covers the ways of decision-making, problem-solving, or even sharing feelings with one another. This way, it helps the different members of the family to judge themselves as well as the outside world. Besides, it also shapes their relationships and behavior. Family dynamics also determine how individuals see themselves later in life, influence their relationships, how they communicate with the world as well as their own well-being.
A 2017 study 2 says, ”family members are linked in important ways through each stage of life, and these relationships are an important source of social connection and social influence for individuals throughout their lives”. Social relationships can deeply influence well-being across the life course. The study also states that the quality of family relationships, including social support and strain, can influence one’s well-being through psychosocial, behavioral, and physiological pathways. It says, ”stressors and social support are core components of stress process theory.” It explains that anxiety can weaken mental health while social support may serve as a protective resource. Additionally, other studies show that stress ”undermines health and well-being”, and struggles in relationships with family members are an especially prominent type of stress. Individuals getting family support may feel a greater sense of self-worth, and this improved self-esteem may be a psychological resource, encouraging optimism, positive affect, and better mental health.
Types Of Family Structures
There are multiple family structures that go beyond our idea of traditional family structure. Each of these structures is defined by a particular type of family dynamics that are discussed here.
1. Nuclear Family
Nuclear families or traditional family structure consists of husband and wife (two parents) along with children. Additionally, there can be more than two children, biological or adopted. The main aim of this type of family is to the children independently backed by a sense of togetherness. According to the U.S. Census Bureau 3 , 69% of children under the age of 18 continue to live in a nuclear family.
- Financial security
- Stable parenting
- Emphasis on efficient communication
- Education, health, upbringing, is a top-notch priority
- Detachment because of no extended family
- Isolation resulting in stress and depression
- Resolving conflicts can become complicated
2. Single Parent Family
As the name suggests, this type of family consists of a single parent raising one or more children leading to unique family dynamics. The single parent could be a mother or a father, who is either married, widowed/widower, single, or divorced. This family structure is rather a common family arrangement and as per data 4 , 17.2 million children under 18 live with a single mother and 3 million with a single father.
- Sharing household duties with kids
- Support from family and relatives
- Children and the parent become strong to face any situation
- Financial uncertainty
- Limitation on job possibilities and income
- Finding childcare becomes difficult
3. Extended Family
An extended family is defined by two or more people, either related by blood or marriage and typically has positive family dynamics. Such families consist of many members in the same house with other relatives such as aunts, uncles, grandparents, or close family and friends. With both working parents, a child may get ignored as the parents do not spend enough quality time. However, in an extended family, this problem does not prevail. An extended family shares a common goal to raise the child, support each other, and maintain the household duties. Also, members of extended families share a strong emotional bonding.
- Consistent support, especially in case of emergencies
- Financial, mental, and social support
- Distribution of duties and income
- Lack of privacy
- Financial burden or instability of income (if members aren’t contributing)
- Interference in other relationships
4. Childless Family
In childless families, couples do not have children, however, most of them wish to have children. Others might wait for the right time to have children. Again, a section may not have children due to health issues while another section opts for voluntary childlessness to succeed in their career, enjoy life, or travel. According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center survey, nearly seven-in-ten U.S. parents younger than 50 (71%) say it’s dubious that they will have more children in the future, and among childless adults in the same age group, about four-in-ten (37%) say they don’t ever expect to become parents.
Among parents under 50, four-in-ten say they do not expect to have more kids in the future because they just don’t wish to, while 30% point to some other reason for not expecting to have more kids. However, such couples prefer to have pets or shower love on their friend’s children.
- No dependency
- Couples get more time to spend with each other
- Sufficient income
- Enjoy other activities like adventure, travel, etc.
- Sometimes feel lonely
- If they love kids, then they feel like something is missing
5. Grandparent Family
A grandparent family is the least common family structure with very different family dynamics. In such families, grandparents get involved in raising children when the parents get entangled in severe circumstances, such as an arrest, undergoing medical treatment, or when they are on drugs. Grandparents step in such situations to stop children from ending up in foster care. Growing up with grandparents, the children learn to cope up with adverse situations in no time. Moreover, in a grandparent’s family, they ensure to look after the child with caution and care.
- Grandparents establish a strong family while maintaining a healthy bond with children
- Secured feeling and a way to learn moral values
- Children are raised with love and care
- Grandparents have to look for an income source
- There prevails a difference in energy levels between the child and the grandparents owing to the health of the grandparents
- Generation gap may lead to conflict in thinking
- Kindness may lead to indiscipline mannerism
In today’s world, it is a common phenomenon for marriages ending in divorce. Additionally, many decide to remarry which leads to the formation of a stepfamily. In such cases, two different families come together to form one unit. Such families consist of a new husband or wife and children from their past relationships. Stepfamilies are about adjustment for the parents as well as the children which may be followed by anger, frustration, confusion, or even jealousy. However, it all depends on the adjustment followed by love and care.
- Children live in a big family with siblings from both the parents
- Both the parents are always around
- Children learn to maintain a strong bonding with both families
- There is financial security from both families
- Children may face difficulties with adjustment
- Parents may fight over their respective kids
- Children may fail to learn moral values
These are the various family structures along with their advantages and disadvantages. Additionally, there are other types of family dynamics, namely healthy and toxic. In the next section of the article, we will explore the same.
Types Of Family Dynamics
Essentially, family dynamics can be divided into two categories- healthy and toxic family dynamics. Here are the features that define both these family dynamics.
1. Healthy Family Dynamics
A functional family makes sure to nurture healthy dynamics along with a safe family environment. Beyond safety, there is love and respect for one another in a healthy family and to shape up a positive environment, several times, parents or members of the family set boundaries or restrictions. While this sounds easy, the job of carving a perfect family needs regular practice and commitment. Such families are defined by-
- Transparent communication with each other devoid of any judgement,
- No physical or verbal abuse
- Taking care of damaged relationships
- Love and care for a vulnerable family member
- Enjoying different activities together
- Sharing responsibilities properly, considering age & flexibility
2. Toxic Family Dynamics
Not every person is born into a healthy family system. Since some are also a part of toxic families, instead of love and respect, they face toxic relationships that are all about discrimination, abuse, or even manipulation. Thus, a toxic family dynamic can affect members by pulling them towards depression or mental illness. According to a study, family dynamics play a significant role in health outcomes, and therefore, unhealthy dynamics in the family can push children towards experiencing trauma and stress as they grow up. This type of exposure, famously known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), is linked to an increased risk of developing physical and mental health problems. Unhealthy family patterns also foster the increased risk of substance use and addiction among adolescents. Signs of a toxic family include:
- Zero emotional support
- Practicing unhealthy control within toxic parents for selfish motives, such as emotional blackmailing, or over-controlling
- The role of children and parents gets reversed, where the child has to take up daily duties while the parents suffer from drug or substance abuse
- An environment of dominance and violence
- No room for privacy and empathy
Read To Know More About: Types Of Family Dynamics
Various Family Dynamics Roles
Apart from the different family dynamics, every family member plays a different role within the family due to such patterns. They also develop because of the decisions we make or owing to our personality. Also, when negativity subjugates any family, then these family roles play a vital role in the progress of the family system. The various family roles are as follows.
In every family, there is always a person who is an ‘achiever’ and also upholds the pride of the family. He/she is a leader, self-disciplined, and over-responsible and thus, tagged as the ‘hero’ of the family.
A scapegoat is also tagged as the ‘black sheep.’ He/she is the person who experiences hardships while others are often regarded as ‘well-behaved.’ Family members consider that he/she needs maximum attention. Despite being adaptive, this member is liable to hamper the family dynamics’ meaning and that’s why his/her issues are always in the limelight. The person is also blamed for turning into a dysfunctional family.
A rescuer in the family is the one who thinks about others well being by solving their problems. He/she takes up this responsibility for the sake of helping others, however, overlooks the fact that it may be harmful to themselves. Due to this, they are incapable of focusing on their lives.
This role is essentially played by children without any intentions. This happens when they feel sorry and try resolving conflicts between parents. The peacekeeper plays the remarkable job of maintaining the peace and harmony of the family. Besides, the role of a peacekeeper is to unwind and mend relationships when there is fear that the family will split.
The mascot is an indispensable part of the family dynamics who adds humor, or other talents to divert the attention of the family. Further, he/she not only entertains but also ensures to relieve stress with his/her antics.
The caretaker is quite similar to a peacekeeper who is continually trying to pacify the chaos. However, if there is a toxic person with active addiction, then the focus of the caretaker is on that member by covering his/her problems created due to addiction.
7. Lost Child
The lost child is the docile member who can ‘fly under the radar.’ All family roles seek attention but the lost child stays mum. He/she also keeps everything to himself/herself. The person avoids becoming a problem and that’s why it becomes ‘lost’ in the family.
8. The Mastermind
This member of the family is usually an opportunist who takes advantage of other’s faults to achieve self-gain.
Family Structural Issues & Family Dynamics
There are several factors that can influence the dynamics in a family unit. Individuality, mutuality, stability, flexibility, clear communication, and role reciprocity as the primary factors contributing to healthy family dynamics. However, mutuality, indicating a shared feeling of attachment and warmth, is identified as the strongest contributing factor. This is in contrast to unhealthy dynamics defined by enmeshment, isolation, rigidity, disorganization, unclear communication, and role conflict. Such factors are different for families. These factors can also revolve around social factors, class, financial stability, culture, and so on. These factors can either hold or fracture the base of a family. Factors that influence family dynamics are as follows.
- The nature of the bond shared by the parents
- Having a parent who is soft or way too strict
- Having a larger number of children in the family
- A mix of characters living under one roof
- An absent parent
- Too many family problems – drug abuse, violence, mental disabilities, etc
- Effect of outside events – illness, death, trauma, etc
- Parents coming holding different cultures and values
- Dynamics practiced by older generations
- Influence from extended family
Understand Family Dynamics For Better Life
The definition of family in itself has changed over the years. In previous generations, families stayed close to each other, and multiple generations helped to raise children. It is now more common for families to be spread across the country and grandparents to have less involvement in their grandchildren’s lives. Without a family close by, some develop a core group of local families, which they consider their family. However, it must be noted that with every individual, the family dynamics’ meaning keeps changing. But every family structure is different. Therefore, adjusting might become challenging. So, one must trust his/her instinct and promise to strengthen the family bonds.
- Jabbari B, Rouster AS. Family Dynamics. [Updated 2020 Jul 27]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560487/
- Thomas PA, Liu H, Umberson D. Family Relationships and Well-Being. Innov Aging. 2017 Nov;1(3):igx025. doi: 10.1093/geroni/igx025. Epub 2017 Nov 11. PMID: 29795792; PMCID: PMC5954612.
- US Census Bureau. (2016). The majority of children live with two parents, Census Bureau reports. The United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2016/cb16-192.html
- US Census Bureau. (2016). Living arrangements of children under age 18. The United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/library/visualizations/2016/comm/cb16-192_living_arrangements.html