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Family Conflict

Cate Malek

Updated 2013 by Heidi Burgess



Any conflicts that occur within a family--between husbands and wives, parents and children, between siblings, or with extended families (grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.)


Anyone who has a family.


No matter how loving a family is, all families go through conflict. Family conflict is different from other types of conflict for several reasons. First, family members are already highly emotionally attached. These emotions can quickly intensify conflict. Second, family members are involved in long-term relationships and often are required to interact with each other daily. Finally, families are often insular, obeying their own rules and resisting outside interference. These characteristics can lead to long, tangled, painful conflicts. At one extreme, family conflict can lead to things like divorce or domestic violence. At the other, families try to repress conflict, avoiding problems and detaching from each other.

Types of Family Conflict

The conflicts family mediators and therapists most often deal with are: fighting between husbands and wives, sibling rivalry and parent-child power struggles. Recently, many adult children have been going to mediators to deal with conflicts related to their elderly parents. Mediators can help families decide living arrangements for the older and often ailing parents. They can also help disputing siblings decide care-taking responsibilities or how their parents' property is to be divided.

Handling Problems Destructively

Families stuck in destructive patterns blame conflict on people, instead of identifying the actual issue in dispute. They may insist that one party win at the expense of the other, and they often try to overpower the other party using manipulation, threats, deception or violence. Families in continual conflict interact in rigidly choreographed patterns and tend to have the same conversation over and over, spinning their wheels instead of addressing their problems in a constructive way.


Although family members may all live in the same house, they may actually be coming from different cultures. Differences such as gender and age can cause behavior that seems irrational, unless one understands the reasoning behind it. Conflict between husbands and wives may be fueled by deeply-ingrained gender stereotypes. Although gender culture is constantly changing and varies with individuals, there are some fundamental differences between males and females that can escalate conflict easily. Age is another factor. Often, the age difference between parents and children is enough to say that they both come from different cultures. What a parent sees as a teenager's rebellious behavior may actually be her attempt to fit into the culture of her peers. It is vital for third parties dealing with family conflict to attempt to understand the family's culture. What seems like the family's lack of common sense to an outside intervener may simply be due to unspoken cultural assumptions.

Handling Problems Constructively

Families who are able to handle conflicts constructively move from focusing on people to focusing on issues. They attempt to meet everybody's needs instead of demanding their own at the expense of others'. They then communicate clearly and listen to each other. This may sound simple, but it is difficult for family members to see a long-term conflict clearly. At this point, they may need a third party such as a therapist or a mediator to help them better managed their  family dynamics. Families are a system; in other words, they are more than the sum of their composite parts. Thus, a family conflict is rarely due to just one family member. It is likely that it is the interaction between all the family members that is escalating the conflict. Because of this, practitioners try to focus on process, instead of content. Instead of worrying about what was said, they analyze how it was said and by whom. Interestingly, the skills that practitioners have learned dealing with intractable family conflict are now being applied to socio-political conflicts.  The Public Conversation Project (PCP), for instance, was started by a group of family therapists who realized that the strategies that they used to help families in crisis could also help communities or even nations in crisis over fundamental differences.  Starting with abortion dialogues in the US, PCP now facilitates dialogues on many public policy topics in the US and abroad.


Although family mediators are best known for their work on divorce, many also work with families to try to keep them together. Mediators can help with any type of family difficulty if the parties are willing to allow a third party to become involved in their problems. Often this is done though family therapy, which is similar to family mediation, but is typically done with a different focus and different approach. Family mediation is more specifically focused on dispute resolution, and follows a pretty structured set of steps to come to an agreement for future behavior.  Family therapy is usually more broadly focused than dispute resolution, and usually follows a different process. 

Links to Related Articles:

Divorce and Custody

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Parent-child Power Struggles

In this article, I can relate to the highly emotional power struggles between parents and children. Starting in middle school, I felt as though I had no voice or power over myself in my family. In my mind, my parents weren't listening to me and I felt they weren't even trying to make sense of where I was coming from as a young person. In other words, neither of us had a perspective of the other's culture.

What made the situation even more tense was the fact that nobody involved in this misunderstanding knew how to effectively communicate where they were misunderstood. I would act out in negative ways and my parents would meet this behavior emotionally charged, with the intent of exercising their parental power over me. These escalated situations made it so that neither myself nor parents could trust and have respect for the other side.

This conflict ran an ugly course for several years and like most conflicts, in needed to get worse before it got better.

A couple years ago, I did a NOLS semester and in this course there was a huge emphasis on effective communication. I began to learn how to communicate the conflict I was feeling in a way that could be clearly understood and respected by the other side. Even more so, I learned how to take initiative with my speech and speak in a way that was truthful.

This is hands down one of the best lessons I have ever learned because it completely changed my relationship with my parents. When I came home, I was in control of my side of our ancient misunderstanding and I was able to get my needs communicated and met. Even more so, the control I developed over my end of the misunderstanding allowed me to set the tone for the resolution conversation, making the situation an open and comfortable one for all.

Though mediation and conflict resolution is somewhat of a quiet industry, I totally support programs that help family conflict through communication. The damage familial conflict does to everyone involved is not always recognized in this society. It has the potential to plague people for the course of their life and prevent one from experiencing their full potential. It is extremely positive and hopeful to see programs designed to help people on this level and I hope anyone struggling with this is able to find support through one of these programs.


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