Family Problems

Is your child arguing with family members?

Is your child:

  • Causing food fights with siblings?
  • Bickering much more than normal?
  • Frustrating you with argumentative interactions?
  • Challenging to engage in conversation?
  • Impacting the whole family with his or bad behavior?
  • Ruining your whole day at work as you think about an argument from that morning?
  • Participating in a constant stream of negative, unhealthy patterns of communication? In other words, does it feel like your family could get along better?


Most families encounter disagreements or difficult interactions. Some level of tension or disagreement is a normal part of family life.

When these interactions become a regular occurrence, this tension could be a red flag of a more serious problem. A family is an interdependent system, and thus each member of the family can be impacted in different ways by these challenges.

Family problems arise from a range of issues within or outside of the family. Common reasons for family problems center on major events, such as death, divorce, life transitions, or illness.

A psychological problem in the family can also be the cause, including substance use, anxiety, and depression.

Finally, the family problem could be caused by changing roles in the family, such as the following examples: children maturing or leaving home, parent responsibilities shifting due to career, loss of health, and other significant re-structuring of family life.

Thinking of the family in terms of a system that relies on all of its parts to function can help to understand why family problems arise.

A good way to understand the family system is to consider the family in terms of gears and cogs in a machine. Each cog is functionally important and necessary for the whole system to work. The whole family is affected by the action of one member, and the whole family can affect a single member.

When family problems arise, it can be useful to remember that everyone is part of the same system with parts that correspond and work well with the others. When the system is not working well and it is much more challenging to try to get the system to work than it used to be, you may be experiencing family problems that need to be addressed by a professional.


Clinically, family problems present as conflicts between members.

Common clinical presentations include the following:

  • a child with problematic or oppositional behavior
  • parental relationship problems
  • parents’ disapproval of a child’s decisions
  • mental illness in the family
  • substance abuse
  • changing roles

Regarding oppositional behavior, a child with extreme temper tantrums, frequent meltdowns, bad attitude, or rule-breaking behavior will impact the family system dramatically.

 In terms of relational problems, often, when children witness parents engaged in constant arguing, discord, or are aware of the potential for separation, the family system is dramatically impacted.

Further, some parents may show an unhealthy disagreement pattern whereby they pull their own adult issues into disagreements with their children. This inconsistency and lack of clarity in parenting has a significant impact on the welfare of the children and on the system as a whole.

Finally, parents may be disapproving of their children’s life decisions, such as the following: moving away, staying home for college, partner choices, concerns about one family member’s lifestyle, or life choices.

Evidence of family problems is different for each family. Some families experience a “shutout,” in that members refuse to engage or talk to others. Some families experience loud, angry conflicts. Some families are constantly fighting, while others are quiet, reserved, and may ‘shove feelings under the rug.’

Whatever the evidence, families usually report they feel exhausted and drained from these encounters. Each member usually has his or her own unhappy experience.

The role of clinicians is generally to help your family address communication styles and patterns. By identifying what is not being said, the family can learn how to hear each member and to communicate his or her own experiences and needs.

Mental Illness: If a member of your family is battling mental illness, he or she may feel the burden of having a behavioral or emotional problem. This family member may not feel understood or accepted.  Other members of the family may not understand the psychological issues and may feel annoyed or angry that that person requires more attention from parents or receives more family resources (monetary, affection, and/or time).

The conflicts that arise may not always reveal the core problem. In this case, a psychologist or family therapist can help to identify the core problem and to support each member in communicating their true experiences, worries, and concerns.

Substance Abuse: Alcohol and drug use is common in the United States. About 27% of Americans over 18 report that they have engaged in binge drinking in the last month; about 15 million adults and about 326,000 adolescents reportedly have an alcohol disorder (NIAA: 2015 [6]).

Given these statistics, and the fact that street drugs are not included here, it is very likely that children will have someone in their immediate or extended family who has a problem with substances.

The significance of the effect of alcohol abuse problems on a family system cannot be overstated. Observing an alcoholic family member can unknowingly teach children poor coping strategies, maladaptive belief systems, and patterns of relational aggression.

Changing roles: We all age and grow out of our old habits, clothes, and behaviors. Sometimes when one family member has played his or her role for so long and decides to make a change, it can affect the whole system. This change can occur when someone stops bad habits or starts new bad habits.

For example, if one parent was an alcoholic and embarks on a process of recovery, the other family members may feel abandoned or insecure in the relationship.

Alternately, the straight-A student may start hanging around with a rough crowd and getting into trouble. This change shakes the system because everyone knew how to accommodate this person as they were. Families struggle when ill members get well, when addicts get better, when quiet, shy members become lively, and when stay-at-home parents return to work.

Sometimes, family members adjust to their new roles or a family member’s new role with ease. Other times, the adjustment is difficult, and a psychologist or family therapist can help the whole family adapt and share their struggles in accepting the new roles.

Major Events: Divorce, adoption, relocation, death, and catastrophic events cause understandable disturbances in our lives. While our families are a cohesive system, each individual has their own personality, lived experience, and coping skills.

Sometimes, families can get through major events relying on each other and each member’s personal strength. Other times, families suffer under these extra burdens. When family members are resilient, perhaps due to a fairly healthy life prior to the significant event, it may be possible to navigate tough times more naturally.

However, in an already stressed out system, one major event may be enough to knock down the whole house of cards. If major events have happened to your family and it seems that family problems were worsened or just persist because of a major event, a psychologist or family therapist can offer support to your family.

Sometimes, family problems around a major event are immediate; other times they are delayed. In any case, seeking the aid of a professional can help your family to process the major event and to reestablish the working system.


If you suspect your family is encountering serious family problems, then first and foremost you should consult a psychologist or family therapist. Other options include the following:

  • Adjusting the schedule: Adding consistency to the schedule can help children cope with changes. It is also a way to make sure quality time together is on the calendar. Make time for family therapy in everyone’s calendar if you determine it is what’s best for your family
  • Making time for conversations: It is important to discuss family problems. Setting aside time to discuss how a child is handling changes and to share your own experiences helps the process be less scary and unknown

    Scheduling positive time: No matter what, it is important to have positive time together. Ending the day positively can be very therapeutic. Even if arguments or disagreements happened earlier, setting aside a regular time to enjoy your child and family time can be a great way to reset and can serve as a reminder of how important everyone is

  • Process: Taking time to process the experience as a family can help everyone remember that you are a special unit that can solve problems together


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Attachment: When great upheaval occurs in a family, children may struggle to form those essential primary attachments to caregivers. This struggle can lead to disordered attachment and lots of emotional and behavioral challenges in children.
  • Death/bereavement: Loss is a very unsettling experience and can affect the whole family. This family issue can disturb normal family dynamics, but as each member processes their grief, things should return to normal. If grief persists for one or more member, it can be helpful to seek therapy.
  • Divorce: While a decision between the adults in the family, divorce affects children and relatives. Divorce has obvious impacts, and some families make it through divorce with minimal impact. If your family is struggling to adjust, therapy can be helpful
  • Emotional regulation: When a child experiences turmoil at home, it is very common for him or her to become overly emotional and have poor coping skills
  • Non-Compliance: When family problems exist, it is very common for kids to act out either at home or at school, or both


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Individual psychological problems: one member may be struggling with their own mental health (anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and/or stress). While it affects the whole family, it may be beneficial for this individual to participate in their own individual therapy
    • Anxiety Disorders: children from families in crisis or who experience a lot of turmoil may become anxious and could develop an anxiety disorder
    • Depression: children from families in crisis or who experience a lot of turmoil often have what psychologists call ‘eroding of the coping structures,’ which means that the child essentially uses up all of their mental energy worrying about the family and depression could result


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child, or to consult ‘live’ with a psychologist
  • Psychologist: to consider symptoms in mental health context
  • Family Therapist: to consider the issues in terms of systems and to work with the whole family to identify patterns and roles

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

The tests that may be administered would depend on the specific family problem. There are a variety of valid tests for emotional issues here: Feeling Tests


[1] Hanh, T.N. (2014). The Art of Communicating.  New York, New York: Harper Collins Publishing. Amazon:

[2] Napier, A., & Whitaker, C. (1988)The Family Crucible: The Intense Experience of Family Therapy. New York, New York: Perrenial Library.


[3] Faber, A. & Mazlish, E. (2012) How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk. New York, New York: Scribner Publishing.


[4] Tsabary, S. (2016). The Awakened Family: A Revolution in Parenting. New York, New York: Viking Publishing.


[5] Remen, R.N. (2006). Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal. New York, New York. Amazon: The Berkley Publishing Group.

[6] National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Stats from NIAA

  • “In 2015, 26.9 percent of people ages 18 or older reported that they engaged in binge drinking in the past month
  • Adults (ages 18+): According to the 2015 NSDUH, 15.1 million adults ages 18 and older(6.2 percent of this age group4) had AUD (Alcohol Use Disorder)
  • Youth (ages 12–17):According to the 2015 NSDUH, an estimated 623,000 adolescents ages 12–176 (2.5 percent of this age group7) had AUD (Alcohol Use Disorder).”

Author Credit:

This article was contributed by guest author and subject matter expert, Chesliegh Keene.

Chesleigh Keene, MA

Chesleigh is a doctoral candidate in Counseling Psychology at the University of Denver. She is a predoctoral intern at the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute. She has clinical and research training in traumatic brain injury, developmental disorders, child/family therapy, serious mental illness in adults, and topics of diversity.

Image Credit:
Description: Annoyed father sitting on sofa while kids fighting and teasing…
Image ID: #130127084 (Big Stock)
By: Wavebreak Media Ltd
Help with family problems
Previously Licensed on: May 21, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for Clear Child Psychology.

Back to: Home → Feeling