This article was written with significant contributions from Chesleigh Keene, Ph.D., researcher and counseling psychologist at the U of Arizona.
What are Family Conflicts in Childhood?
Family conflicts in childhood are challenges that arise and lead to difficulty with communication, trust, and harmony in the household.
Most families encounter disagreements or difficult interactions. Some level of tension or disagreement is a normal part of family life. When family members can stay calm in the face of conflict and let the small things go, these conflicts are less likely to be so detrimental in childhood.
Symptoms of Family Problems in Childhood and Teenage Years
- Yelling and screaming: your child is constantly arguing and fighting with other family members
- Withdrawing from family: your child has withdrawn from the family, spending most of the day, almost every day, alone or away from home
- Frequent calls from school: your child is regularly calling to come home from school, or you are receiving many calls from the principal’s office or guidance counselor about concerning behavior
- Getting into frequent fights: your child is fighting with family members, friends, or people at school
- Acting out behavior: your child is frequently making poor choices that are negatively impacting the family
- Everyone in the family is angry with each other: your child, along with others in the family system, are no longer talking with each other, or when you are talking, it is argumentative and hurtful
- A sudden shift in behavior, engagement, or school work: your child who was doing just fine begins to get in trouble, stops turning in assignments, or gets poor grades.
Causes of Family Problems in Childhood and Teenage Years
Family problems arise from various issues within or outside of the family. Common reasons for family problems center on major events or traumas, such as death, divorce, life transitions, or medical/behavioral health.
“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.”
- Psychological problem: in a family, any mental health issue, including substance use, anxiety, and depression, can wreak havoc on the system
- Changing roles: in a family, shifting roles can cause significant distress. This change may be due to: older children maturing or leaving home, parent responsibilities changing due to career, loss of health, or financial issue
- Oppositional behavior: in a family, a child with extreme temper tantrums, frequent meltdowns, bad attitude, or rule-breaking behavior will impact the family system dramatically
- Relational problems between parents: in a family, when children witness parents engaged in constant arguing, discord, or are aware of the potential for separation, the family system is dramatically impacted
- Relational problems between parents and kids: in a family, the relationship between each parent and child can be the source of mental health problems and developmental trauma. Parents need to know that the top-down, punishing approaches that we may have learned as kids are shown in the research to be ineffective and often damaging. To learn more about how to approach discipline with firm boundaries and love, Dr. Shefali Tsabary is a modern-day expert on this topic [1-3]
- Disapproving of a child’s choices: in a family, common challenges that lead to conflict with choices include: moving away, staying home for college, partner choices, concerns about one family member’s lifestyle, or life choices
- Mental health or developmental disability: in a family, if a member is battling mental illness or developmental disability, they 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, or time)
The conflicts that arise may not always reveal the core problem. In this case, a psychologist or family therapist can help identify the core problem and support each member in communicating their true experiences, worries, and concerns.
- Addiction to substances: in a family, the significance of the effect of alcohol addiction or drug problems on a family system cannot be overstated. Observing an alcoholic or constantly high family member can unknowingly teach children poor coping strategies, maladaptive belief systems, patterns of relational aggression, and lack of motivation. Families facing addiction are tasked with making tough yet critical decisions to create a healthy and peaceful home. Debra Jay at Love First.net is a recommended expert coach who guides families on how to take action against addiction with persistence and love. [4-7]
- Teen Substance Use: in a family, if any member uses drugs or drinks heavily, there will be problems. As parents, it is disconcerting to learn that your teenager is experimenting with substances. However, not all teens who try drugs will become addicted. The important factor in addiction is genetics. Because there is no way to know in advance if a teenager will become addicted, it is important to learn the signs of addiction and know how to take action. [4-7]
- Changing roles: in a family, we all age and grow out of our old habits, clothes, and behaviors. Sometimes when one family member has played their 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 and becomes healthy or starts new bad habits. For example, if one parent was an alcoholic and embarks on a recovery process, 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: in a family, divorce, adoption, relocation, death, and catastrophic events can cause understandable disturbances in our lives. While our families are a cohesive system, each individual has their own personality, lived experience, and coping skills. These changes may cause different types of distress in each member of the family system.
What to Do About Family Problems in Childhood or Teenage Years
If you suspect your family is encountering serious problems, then first and foremost, you should consult a psychologist or family therapist. Online therapy might be a good option that matches a family’s busy and diverse schedules. It is important to prioritize help. Here are some ideas you can try to improve your family’s functioning.
- DO adjust the schedule: in a family, 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
- DO make time for conversations: in a family, it is important to discuss problems openly. 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
- DON’T ‘put it off’: in a family’s day, there are many distractions and schedule changes. However, especially in teenagers, we find that they will come to their parents at odd times of the day to share about their lives. As a parent, it is very important not to miss your window. If you are about to run out the door and your child is just itching to tell you something, try to stop what you are doing and listen
- DO schedule positive time: in a family, 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 to each other
- DO lighten up: in a family, there can be a lot of emotion, which can be stressful. Do not expect your kids to be happy, successful, and productive all the time. Allow your child to travel their own authentic journey and to stumble and fall, just like you have. Give your child love, support, and patience as they come into their own as individuals. A great resource for learning to do this is proposed by Dr. Shefali Tsabary in the Awakened Family book and lectures. [1-3]
- DO celebrate the good times: in a family, life will often have many ups and downs. Remember that this pattern is normal. When your kiddos have a success day, celebrate. Did your daughter make the honor roll? Did your formerly struggling math student get an A on a test? Did your shy son try out for the school play? Take the time to celebrate these ‘wins.’
- DO process the bad times: in a family, taking time to process experiences can help everyone remember that you are a special unit that can solve problems together. It is okay for your kids to know that you don’t always have it all together or know exactly what to do in each situation. Your humility and vulnerability can go a long way to heal the wounds that families will inevitably experience
- DON’T ignore warning signs: in a family, there are so many things to worry about and it can be tempting to just ‘let things go.’ If your teenager is spending too much time alone, losing focus on their goals, and missing out on important events, pay attention. These are signs of depression or addiction that may require your help [4-7]
- DO seek individual support: in a family, if one member is dealing with a mental health challenge, addiction, or illness, it is important that they get individual support and treatment. Family therapy may be a good supplemental treatment to engage in as a whole family in addition to that individual treatment
- DO get help for abuse: in a family, if a member is being abused, get help immediately. Most communities have walk-in crisis centers where families can go to get help. If there is domestic violence, resources are available.
- DO model and guide your children: in a family, it is healthy to model and guide your children about healthy lifestyle choices. Children need guidance, nurturing, and modeling from infancy to young adulthood. As children grow, they need to have more freedom over their lifestyle choices. However, when children are using drugs, for example, you do need to step in and help your child. Children need a balance between boundaries and knowing they are loved and supported.
When to Seek Help for Family Challenges
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 before 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 problems have worsened or just persisted 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 process the major event and reestablish the working system.
Professional Resources on Family Challenges
If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of their learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.
- Psychotherapist or play therapist: to treat emotional or behavioral health symptoms in an individual family member
- Family therapist: to meet with the family and work on overall goals and communication
- ABA therapist: to treat behavior; can conduct an analytical Functional Analysis of the function of behavior that can help guide treatment. Comes to the home and can help with behavioral dynamics of siblings and how parents respond to challenging moments and conflicts
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment to look at symptoms in mental health and behavioral contexts. If one or more family members are struggling with something more significant than just family communication
Similar Conditions to Family Problems
If your child is struggling with a similar problem not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for 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 stressor 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 the decision is made between the adults in the family, divorce affects children and relatives. Divorce has some obvious impacts, but some families make it through divorce with minimal impact. If your family is struggling to adjust, therapy can be helpful
- Emotion regulation: When a child experiences turmoil at home, it is very common for them to become overly emotional and have poor coping skills
- Noncompliance: When family problems exist, it is common for kids to act out either at home or at school, or both
Resources on Family Problems in Childhood
 Shefali Tsabary (May, 2016). The Awakened Family: A Revolution in Parenting.
 Shefali Tsabary (Nov, 2012). Conscious Parenting Tedx.
 Mark Hyman MD (Oct, 2018). The Doctor’s Farmacy. The Awakened Family with Shefali Tsabary. Farmacy podcast.
Resources on Family Problems Related to Addiction
- Love First.net: A site with resources for recovery and intervention for family members who are serious about taking action against addiction. From the authors referenced throughout this article (Jeff Jay and Debra Jay) 
- Charlie Health: an affordable online treatment program for teens, young adults and families. Counselors are available 24/7 (866-540-1828) 
- Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation: (800-257-7810) Nonprofit chemical dependency treatment center with an emphasis on child and family issues 
- Sustain Recovery: Adolescent treatment and long-term recovery residential placement in southern california. Includes ocean adventures. Uses a 12 step model. 
- Alcoholics Anonymous. Welcomes anyone who wishes to stop drinking 
Coaching options for your family
- Next Level Recovery: Offers life coaching, family coaching, and recovery coaching (919-428-0048)
- 360 Transitions: Offers case management, collaboration with local therapists, transitioning of learned skills from rehab into the home environment, daily texting and conferencing with the child
Rehab programs for teenagers
- Turnbridge residential treatment center: a holistic long-term treatment center for teens and adults. This recovery model encourages development of self-empowerment, fitness, physical health, mental health, academics and career planning
- Family First Adolescent Services: a residential program for teenage boys in a non-traditional, non-hospital, homey style setting. Therapy is combined with ocean kayaking, deep-sea fishing, trampoline, and other healthy thrills to develop relationships with staff and foster self-esteem. This program uses the Neuroaffective Relational Model (NARM) to address developmental traumas that may influence a teen’s addiction and recovery
Resources if Family Problems are Related to Abuse or Domestic Violence
When dad hurts mom: Helping your children heal the wound of witnessing abuse.
Resources for kids
Holmes, M Margret (2000) A terrible thing happened.
Brian, Rachel (2020) Consent (for Kids!): Boundaries, Respect, and Being in Charge of YOU
Further Resources on Family Problems
Hanh, T.N. (2014). The Art of Communicating. New York, New York: Harper Collins Publishing.
Napier, A., & Whitaker, C. (1988)The Family Crucible: The Intense Experience of Family Therapy. New York, New York: Perrenial Library.
Faber, A. & Mazlish, E. (2012) How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk. New York, New York: Scribner Publishing.
Remen, R.N. (2006). Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal. New York, New York. Amazon: The Berkley Publishing Group.
Winfrey, Oprah & Perry, Bruce (2021). What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing
Lawrence Heller. Healing developmental trauma: How early trauma affects self-regulation, self image, and the capacity for relationships
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 older3 (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).”