Finding Functional: How to Keep Family Dynamics Healthy

Family smiling and hugging in the kitchen

By Jennifer Regester, LCSW

Family dysfunction is often a topic that hits a nerve for most people. It’s difficult to admit and accept their family isn’t totally put together—that they have issues. Parents become embarrassed when their children misbehave, and the kids don’t want their friends to know their home life is a mess. Yet, it happens in virtually every family. Functionality is frequently a fleeting thing that comes and goes in most families. Is it possible for the family dynamics to be functional 100% of the time?

What does a dysfunctional family look like?

Let’s use an example most everyone has experienced: the long family car ride. Whether it be for vacation, a trip across the city enduring bumper-to-bumper traffic, or any other reason, long car rides can bring out the worst in anyone. Parents’ stress levels have reached the peak of combustion due to the kids bickering, bantering, and complaining. They are tired, uncomfortable, and impatient. This scenario depicts dysfunction as a common but easily instigating experience of stress, anger, and powerlessness. 

This example can parallel many other situations in life that could be considered dysfunctional. It seems when we are physically uncomfortable or especially irritable, we often take our emotions out on the core people in our lives: our families. Lack of sleep, hunger, and stress are all key factors in these outbursts or “dysfunctional demonstrations.” When core hurts trigger us, we tend to react in a way that may or may not have served as a coping skill. When children are raised in families with layers of dysfunction, they tend to learn unhealthy coping mechanisms because their basic core needs have not been met. Therefore, those core needs turn into core hurts which is emotional neglect. You can’t see it, but it’s apparent by a person’s reaction to uncomfortable or stressful situations. So, let’s look at what those core needs and core hurts look like in dysfunctional family dynamics.

How do you handle dysfunction within family dynamics?

How you react to dysfunction and family issues can have a spiraling impact and create further problems. Dysfunction stems from a problem or problems that one or more members of your family are experiencing. What sometimes begins as a small problem can quickly turn into complex dysfunction if those small problems are ignored. In a well-bonded healthy family environment, family members will stay connected. They’ll check in both physically and emotionally with each other. There is a feeling of safety, support, and respect imbedded in the foundation. Children learn these characteristics at an early age as they are role modeled by the core people in their lives—particularly parents, grandparents, and aunts/uncles. Constantly checking in with the members of your family and making sure that their basic core needs are met could minimize the amount of dysfunction your family experiences.

Core needs are those basic emotional securities that we should meet to be mentally healthy. With each core need also comes the opposite of the need, a core hurt. If you think back to a time in your life where you felt a core hurt, you probably had unhealthy coping skills as a result. Maybe it has been a repeated issue in your life. When you look at the list below and read each bullet, you might remember certain people, places, or situations. Now reflect on how you reacted in those memorable scenarios. Thinking about those feelings that we experienced may now have a familiar level of sadness, anger, fear, or discomfort.  Those are the “triggers” that bring you back to the core hurt.  

Core Needs / Core Hurts

There are 10 core needs the family should be instilling, and then there are core hurts that can result if not met:

  • Important / Unimportant
  • Heard / Disregarded
  • Accepted / Rejected
  • Praised / Accused
  • Right and Bold / Guilty
  • Valued and Cherished / Devalued
  • Empowered and Supported / Powerless
  • Respected / Disrespected
  • Competent and Equal / Inadequate
  • Loved and Admired / Unlovable

It is extremely important to ensure that both your individual and family members’ core needs are met daily. Family dynamics can be greatly affected by the lack of communication on what we need mentally. It is imperative that if you are feeling like your needs are not being met, you should express yourself to those you care about and who care about you. Constant mental maintenance is key.

A Functioning Machine

Imagine the car you are riding in for these aggravating road trips we talked about before. The car is doing its job because of the constant maintenance and service on the car. Just like the car, we need constant maintenance on all aspects of our health and wellbeing to be a fully functioning, well-oiled machine. Let’s break down this example even further: The parts our of cars can symbolize these aspects of our mental health. Just as your car has four tires that serve as the basic pillars of the operation of your car, our four human “tires” are our physical, mental/emotional, social, and spiritual health. Our tire pops if we don’t tend to one of those pillars of health, and we won’t function properly.

Looking at the internal mechanisms of your vehicle, you might be reminded of those core hurts and core needs. 

Just like these internal procedures are crucial to the functionality of the car, meeting your core needs is essential to the functionality of you and your mental health. 

Other factors like sleep, diet, exercise, time with loved ones, and a connection to your spirituality are all the internal mechanisms supporting your four pillars of health.

To make sure that your car is running smoothly, it requires constant upkeep and constant attention. You do some things more frequently to maintain your car (e.g. putting gas in the tank, oil changes, and car washes), whereas other maintenance items are required when needed. When you’re in a fender bender or your car won’t start, sometimes you need the mechanic to take a look. Just like the care for your car, you also need maintaining. Some of our maintenance is required daily. Other times we need to have a counselor or family member help us figure out what’s happening under the hood. Both are complex these days. 

What do healthy family dynamics look like?

A healthy family needs every member to be a well-oiled machine. Sometimes a parent will be extra tired or experiencing stress due to work, and the machine will break down. It’s important to constantly sustain yourself, so that when you do break down, it is easier to fix. Allowing conflict and problems to go unresolved will ultimately greatly affect our overall health, especially mentally and socially. Opening yourselves up through positive communication and conflict resolution is the best way to maintain those family relationships.

Now imagine that the four wheels of your car are you and your family members. If someone is not healthy in any aspect, it affects the entire family. If one tire pops, it affects the entire vehicle to the point where it cannot function. Even if the tire has a nail in it, the car still operates, but eventually you will have to pull over, fill it with air, and pray to the destination. That’s a lot of time, energy, and stress. Why do that? 

To maintain a functional and healthy family, it’s important to make sure all the individuals are healthy. When conflict arises, getting to the issue’s root and understanding why the parties involved feel the way they do will make everyone feel heard. Ideally, these conversations will end in a hopeful resolution everyone can feel better about. Sometimes, it takes several round table discussions, but the value of your family is worth it.

When you feel the problem has become too big for you to fix either as an individual or as a family, it may be time to seek help. No one expects you to repair your car on your own after it breaks down. Why should anyone expect you to fix your family by yourself when it breaks down?

If you feel that you could use help from a licensed clinician, Anchorpoint offers a wide range of family counseling. Please feel free to fill out our digital intake form or call our counseling offices at (412) 366-1300. We understand that finding functional for some families can be difficult, and we want to help for the sake of both the family dynamics and your own personal mental health.