For many people, home is their refuge. Home is where they retreat after work, and it’s where they relax before heading out for a night on the town or running the kids to their next extracurricular activity. But for some, their home is the last place they want to be due to the stress that’s inherently entwined with their family relationships.
Your family is supposed to be a source of unconditional love and support throughout your life, from your childhood through your last days. Even in the closest of families, however, the ebb and flow of stress and family relationships can damage the foundation of love and support your family is supposed to provide and embody.
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Consequences of Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships with Family Members
The relationships you have with your family members can have a positive or negative influence on various facets of your life. Strong familial relationships can be a life-supporting force that can support your overall mental health and physical well-being.
Positive relationships are like a collective well of support and understanding you can draw from when you’re stressed out for reasons that either stem from inside or outside your home. When your family relationships are strong, they foster a sense of unconditional belonging that you might not find in other aspects of your life.
When your familial relationships are unhealthy and fraught with stressors, they can increase the stress that’s already infused into those relationships. Stress-filled relationships can also increase conflict between loved ones, which will just create more worry.
Research shows that the health and well-being of 10 – 30 percent of adolescents raised in homes with unhealthy familial relationships are at-risk. Studies also indicate that kids raised in dysfunctional households experience a greater risk for depression, anxiety, and poor self-esteem.
The effects of stress on adults can be equally devasting or perhaps even more so. Research strongly suggests that people who deal with stressful familial relationships from childhood experience a greater lifetime risk for the following:
- Sleep abnormalities
- Obstructive pulmonary disease
- Chronic pain issues, bronchitis, anxiety, depression, and emphysema
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Autoimmune disorders
Common Causes of Stressful Familial Relationships
A lot of things can cause stress between loved ones, but some issues are more common than others. Here are some of the issues that may infuse stress into the relationships you share with your family members:
- Financial problems: Financial problems are a common cause of family stress, as providers worry about how they’re going to support themselves as well as their family members. The loss of a job, increased expenses on the home front, or an unexpected injury or illness can cause financial problems that result in increased stress.
- Family conflict: When families fight among themselves, it can create a lot of stress that impacts both children and adults. It can cause mixed messaging, too, which can result in confusion that then causes more conflict. For example, adults with different parenting styles may end up fighting over how to discipline a child, which may result in the kid repeating the behavior that got him in trouble and ignited the conflict to begin with.
- Health issues: Health problems can wreak havoc in sibling relationships as they make life decisions for ailing parents. They can also increase family stress among immediate family members as they make adjustments to their lifestyle to care for a sick, injured, or frail loved one.
- Death: The death of a loved one can generate a tremendous amount of family stress even when the decedent’s death was expected or predicted well in advance. Grief typically follows the loss of a loved one, and when people go through grief’s various stages at different times – which is quite possible – it can cause strife.
- The arrival of a new family member: Whether you’re welcoming a baby, an adopted child, or an aging parent into your home, the person’s arrival can disrupt existing familiar relationships and cause stress. Sibling rivalry, jealousy, disobedience, defiance, and fighting may result from the arrival of a new member of the household.
- Moving: In general, moving directly correlates to increased familial stress. Parents may worry about how they’re going to cover their new mortgage payments while kids might fear the upcoming move and the need to make new friends. All that worry and fear can increase the stress in your home.
- Aberrant behavior: When a spouse cheats on her partner or a teenager starts dealing drugs or skipping school, the person’s aberrant behavior can drastically change your family dynamics, and not in a good way. Things may only get worse if the offender repeats their unacceptable behavior over and over again.
- Holidays: if you get together with extended family during the holiday season, you’ve probably experienced the stress that often accompanies those celebrations. From aunts asking why you’re not married yet to cousins commenting on your weight, childrearing, job status, or allegiance to a given sports team…and, of course, the in-fighting about politics. There are a lot of triggers that can make holiday get-togethers more stressful than enjoyable no matter how good the food is.
- World Events: External events such as the arrival of a global pandemic can change your family dynamics and even your family environment. A lot of parents now find themselves working from home due to the ongoing pandemic. While the increased involvement in their children’s lives is likely rewarding, it can also be stressful for both parents and kids who don’t have the same amount of alone time as they used to.
Shining the Spotlight on Dysfunctional Family Behaviors
Before you can deal with familial stress, you have to identify the cause(s) of the toxicity that might be rampant within your family. Many factors can drive dysfunctional family dynamics, and some of them can be hard to spot. While that’s true, identifying what those factors are is the first step toward addressing them and reducing your family’s stress.
Making Bitingly Critical Comments
With your family having known you for your whole life, your relatives probably have a rich supply of unfortunate experiences they can draw from to criticize you. While some of those instances may be laughable now, even happenings that are no longer considered so bad can be weaponized by a relative who uses them to hurt you.
Critical comments launched in your direction, no matter how seemingly humorous, can hit you as hard as a physical punch. Sometimes, they can hit even harder and more painfully than that.
Giving You the Silent Treatment
Just like the words used to make critical comments can wound you, so can silence. Although it’s perfectly acceptable for a person to seek out some alone time after an argument, it’s not okay for that individual to give you the silent treatment for hours or days after a disagreement.
Toxic people use silence as a form of punishment and a means of control. These individuals feel as if their power over another person has increased when that loved one pursues them to reestablishment communication.
Lying and Denying
Even if a loved one’s lie doesn’t affect you, it can still create an atmosphere of distrust, as the untruth may cause you to question what else your relative is lying about. Broad-based denials like “we don’t judge others in this house” can also infuse mistrust into your family environment, especially when there’s plenty of evidence that contradicts the denial.
Generalizing During an Argument
Stressful experiences often result when a relative uses generalizations in disagreements because it’s very hard to argue a general statement compared to defending against a specific one. For example, if a loved tells you that you chew with your mouth open, you can stop that specific behavior. If that same relative tells you he doesn’t like the way you eat, you wouldn’t know where to start changing your behavior or how to defend yourself.
Pitting Relatives Against Each Other
It’s common for toxic relatives to sow conflict among others. A toxic parent may foster feelings of jealousy and resentment by asking her youngest son why he can’t be more like his older sibling. Alternatively, she may share the negative comment another person made about her son with her child, which may make the young man bitter toward the initial speaker.
When a relative changes the subject of a conversation to deflect attention away from themselves and onto you, it’s a clear sign of dysfunction. An example of this type of maneuver would be for your alcoholic husband to condemn you for being flirty at the restaurant even if you weren’t simply to deflect attention away from his continued drinking
Causing You to Feel Guilty About Feeling Bad
Have you ever tried to explain why or how you feel bad about something only to have a family member make you feel guilty for having those feelings? If so, you know how painful it can be for a relative to trivialize the stressful times or worrisome experiences you’ve undergone. People who engage in this type of behavior may turn on the crocodile tears, chastise you with righteous anger, or advise you to “just let it go already.”
Employing Threats, Vile Language, Isolating Tactics, or Physical Violence
Abuse can take many forms, and none of them are acceptable. A toxic person might isolate you from your friends so they have more control over you and you have fewer people to confide in, for example.
Dysfunctional individuals may try to intimidate you with threats, expletives, or the threat of physical violence. The removal of emotional support or putting conditions on its availability, and actually laying hands on another person with the intent to hurt them are additional forms of abuse that can lead to stressful experiences that are painful to work through.
The term gaslighting is taken from the legendary Ingrid Bergman film entitled “Gaslight.” Gaslighting refers to a kind of emotional mistreatment involving a person causing another individual to question their reality and experiences. Someone telling you that your family life as a child wasn’t as bad as you describe it is a form of gaslighting. A relative denying that something you personally experienced happened is another example.
Failing to Respect Boundaries
Family issues can arise very quickly when people don’t respect each other’s boundaries. Healthy relationships require participants to set boundaries. Many people think you’re drawing a line in the sand for someone else when you’re setting a boundary, but that’s not the case. When you set a boundary, you’re setting a limit for yourself. If someone ignores your personal limit, they should know that you’ll take steps to protect and reinstate your boundary.
An example of a boundary would be a father telling his children he will not tolerate them using expletives when they speak to him. If the kids ignore the boundary, the remedy might be as simple as the dad excusing himself from the conversation prematurely.
When relatives cross boundaries, it can create stress, especially if they do so knowingly and repeatedly. One of the most effective things you can do to avoid the stress that often stems from breached boundaries is to communicate your limits to your loved ones clearly and firmly.
Can Dysfunctional Familial Behaviors Create a Cycle?
Being able to recognize toxic familial behaviors is extremely important. If you can’t recognize them, you can’t address them. When these behaviors are allowed to continue, they can act as risk factors that make it more likely that you’ll perpetuate the cycle of mistreating loved ones.
Being exposed to the behaviors discussed above often decreases a person’s ability to recognize them in others because they’ve been viewed as the accepted norm for so long. The results of being unable to recognize others’ toxic behaviors may increase the likelihood that you’ll end up with a partner who’s not good for your physical, emotional, or psychological well-being. The consequences of that may include:
- Developing people-pleasing tendencies even when they’re to your detriment
- Having trouble controlling your anger
- Being emotionally absent from your relationships with other grown-ups
Tips for Handling Your Family Relationships and Reducing Stress
Although there is no magic potion you can use to instantly turn your relationships around and eliminate familial discord, you can make things better with a little hard work and an investment of time. While recognizing toxic behaviors is the first step toward healthier, happier relationships, it’s just that—the first step.
Develop Healthy Communication Habits
How family members communicate with each other can have a big influence on the quality of the relationships they share. Demonstrate the habits you want your loved ones to mimic, such as active listening, refraining from interrupting, and avoiding negative nonverbal cues like rolling your eyes.
During family meetings and one-on-one get-togethers with your kids, ask them leading questions that require more than a one-word answer. Choose questions they’ll be comfortable and willing to discuss and don’t betray their confidence by announcing what they shared to others.
Be Familiar with Stressors
Different things cause some people to stress out without causing others to do the same. To avoid conflict and reduce or eliminate stress within your family, you need to familiarize yourself with your personal stressors as well as your relatives’ triggers.
When you know your own stressors, you can do simple things like focusing on something else instead of what’s irking you. By knowing your relatives’ triggers, you can avoid behaviors that might set them off.
If your daughter can’t stand it when you refer to her using a nickname she’s outgrown, you can refrain from upsetting her by calling her by the name she prefers. Does your husband get visibly frustrated when you adjust the rearview mirror in his automobile? You can avoid using his car or you can return the mirror to its original position before you exit his vehicle to avoid stressing him out or causing an argument.
Be True to Yourself
Just like your kids may outgrow nicknames and clothes, you may outgrow behaviors your family is used to. If you go to a family reunion, your extended family might be surprised when you refuse a beer when you’ve always been the life of the party in years gone by. Although it’s tempting to step back into the roles people expect you to fill, you should resist, especially if the expected behavior is not reflective of the person you’ve evolved into.
When you engage in behavior or adopt a faux persona just to make your relatives comfortable, you’re exhibiting people-pleasing tendencies that aren’t healthy. Your relatives should never expect or pressure you to be anything other than who you are in the moment. Although that’s true, you may need to give them time to accept the new and improved version of yourself.
Spend Quality Time Together
You can smooth over some family issues by spending quality time doing things that your family will genuinely enjoy. As you do more activities together, it can greatly improve your family life because your relatives will learn how to communicate with each other better, and they’ll be more aware of everyone’s strengths, weaknesses, interests, commonalities, differences, triggers, and stress responses.
The Adventures From Scratch: Family Edition is filled with fun activities that are meant to bring families even closer together. This book is a collection of scratch-off adventures that will require you and your partner to work with your kids to complete. Each challenge can be done at home or on the fly during a family vacation.
If your immediate family consists of just you and your significant other, you may want to bypass the family adventure book in favor of the Adventures From Scratch: Date Edition. This book includes 50+ adventures that couples can do together as the bonds between them grow deeper. Whether you’re planning a date night or an evening of romance, you’ll find an adventure to set the desired mood in our couple’s adventure book.
What are some other things you can do with your family? Depending on your family’s interests, you may want to:
- Cook together
- Go on a camping trip
- Have a movie night, with a family discussion after the film ends
- Attend cultural events like art exhibits and live performances
- Take music lessons
- Participate in an art class
- Stream an age-appropriate show
- Complete a family-oriented scavenger hunt
- Enjoy a family game night
- Volunteer as a group
Practicing mindfulness is all about being in the moment with yourself, the others around you, and your environment. By practicing mindfulness, you’ll demonstrate that you’re fully present when you interact with your family. That will show your loved ones that you prioritize the moments you share with them and value whatever is said and done during that time. This awareness can make all the difference in your parent-child relationships as well as the relationships you share with other adults.
Mindfulness is one of those stress management tools that often takes time to master, particularly if you’re a serial multi-tasker. Although it may take time, the key to becoming a mindfulness pro is simply to get started. You can begin your journey by practicing some basic breathing exercises that will train you to focus on your breath exclusively. From there, you can learn some other skills, such as yoga and meditation.
There are plenty of apps that can help you develop some healthy mindfulness practices. Here are some of the apps you might want to try out:
- Smiling Mind
- Simple Habit
Being mindful can help reduce or even eliminate your parenting stress. Things work in reverse too, as you suffering from less parenting stress can make it easier for you to be mindful. The more you practice mindfulness, the more likely it will become that you’ll react to stressful times with a steady calmness.
The benefits of mindfulness aren’t limited to adults. To help your kids develop healthier and calmer stress responses, you may want to introduce them to mindfulness at a young age. Apps like Mindful Powers and Smiling Mind are great to use with kids during their early child development years and beyond.
Seek Social Support
When you see other families, you may wonder how they’re so perfect while you struggle with your relatives. The truth is, there is no such thing as a perfect family despite appearances. No matter how wonderful things seem for others as you look at posts on social media, every family experiences trying times on occasion at least, with some being better at hiding those instances than others.
With everyone struggling with family problems at least once in a while, the odds are good that you won’t have to look for social support for long. Whether you confide in a trusted friend, you hook up with some empathetic soccer moms, or you join an organized support group, it’s important that you have a support network you can turn to for help, advice, and support.
If you simply can’t bring yourself to discuss your familial issues face-to-face, find some family-oriented forums. When you sign up for a forum, you can join the ongoing discussions anonymously or you can start a new thread using a username that gives no clues about your identity. Reddit, Talk About Marriage, and Step Talk, are some of the online forums biological and stepparents may want to check out.
Focus on Things Within Your Control
Whether you live in New York or another state or country, you’ll find that a lot of things are beyond your control. Traffic is a good example of something you can’t control even if you work for the Department of Transportation. Like you can’t control traffic, you can’t control what your relatives are going to do. Will your aunt ask you when you’re going to get married for the 500th time during Thanksgiving dinner? You can’t control her so don’t worry about it.
Rather than fretting over things beyond your control, focus on the things you can control. Your behavior and words are things within your control, so pay careful attention to them. Make sure you act and speak deliberately and rationally so you set a good example for your family.
Don’t waste your time mulling over what-if scenarios when all you can do is wait for a situation to play out. Have you been assigned caregiving duties for an older parent who’s hospitalized? While you can’t perform your father’s upcoming surgery, you can control the flow of information between relatives to ensure younger kids only know the tidbits they’re old enough to process without incurring stress that may spill over into their interactions with others.
Own Your Feelings and Accept Others’ Emotions
No matter how hard you try, you can’t help the way you feel about something. It’s okay if you feel angry, sad, or stressed when something happens. There are no right or wrong feelings, and your initial feelings may shift as time passes.
No matter how something makes you feel, you need to own your feelings even if you think they’re inappropriate. Owning your feelings will help you be more compassionate and forgiving towards yourself, which is very important. If it helps, talk to yourself like you’d console a friend by saying, “I’m sorry you’re feeling blue, what can I do to put a smile on your face?” You may be surprised how kind statements like that can silence your critical inner voice so you can give yourself a break.
While you don’t have to agree with how others feel, you do need to accept their emotions. If your child tells you she’s upset about her spilled milk, you need to accept that and help her work through her feelings. Simply pouring your daughter a second glass of milk isn’t enough. You need to accept and support her emotional turmoil with judging or “correcting” it, so she can work through it and move on with her day in a healthy manner.
It’s a widely accepted fact that people who get adequate sleep every night experience less stress. They’re also generally happier and better able to manage their anger. The benefits of sufficient sleep can obviously help you improve your family relationships and how you manage them.
If your partner or kids seem more stressed or grumpy than usual, ask them if they’re getting enough sleep. Even if they say they are sleeping enough, consider monitoring their sleep habits to make sure. If they aren’t recording enough Z’s overnight, take a look at their schedules to see if certain activities or responsibilities can be eliminated so they have more time to rest.
Get Professional Help
When things seem like they’re too far gone, you may want to seek help from a health professional. If talking to your primary care physician gets you nowhere, consider working with a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. You can undergo psychiatry or counseling on your own, with your partner, or you can get your whole family involved so you can all improve your shared family relationships and manage the stress associated with them better.
Frequently Asked Questions
Stress that concerns one or more family members, or affects the family as a whole, is considered family-related stress. In addition to individual mood, well-being, stress can impact family relationships.
Stress impacts family relationships, as well as individual members of the family unit. There are several causes, including health issues, conflict, holidays, relocation, financial problems, and death.