Family conflict

It’s normal for our families to stress us out sometimes. It’s also true that strained familial relationships can contribute to mental health challenges. This guide can help you identify whether these relationships are negatively affecting your mindset, and will help you find more productive ways to manage them. 
Man and younger son walking and talking

What is it?

Most people would agree that family relationships can be complicated. For some of us, family members are the people you’re closest with and those who you know best—maybe even better than anyone else. For others, our family relationships are not what we’d hoped they’d be, and we may be distant from our relatives, emotionally triggered by them or may not have a relationship with them at all. 

No matter what our relationships are, however, they affect us significantly. Whether you’re the parent, the sibling or the child, family dynamics can be a significant cause of stress or emotional distress in our lives. This is especially true during certain times of the year, like holidays or family events, or because of certain stressors like going away to school, divorce, finances and caregiving.

Many of us know the feeling of trying to talk to a family member and noticing feeling resentful, sad, anxious or angry. Sometimes arguments feel like they come out of nowhere. This can make us feel powerless and can lead to a strained relationship.


You might limit your contact or keep it surface-level and polite without being engaged. You might also decide to stop communication altogether, which is called estrangement. The weight of these feelings can be hard to shake and can creep into aspects of your life and into your other relationships.

Of course, occasional conflict is part of family life. Ongoing conflict or estrangement, however, can have a huge impact on your mental health. While every family is different, and even different relationships between different members of one family can be closer or more distant, there are a few common signs of family conflict that you can identify that might have a lasting impact on your mental health: 

  • Small disagreements that quickly escalate into shouting or screaming
  • Passive aggressive comments (indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them)
  • Prolonged periods of silence (without contact) following an argument or disagreement
  • Mutual enabling of self-destructive behaviors, such as substance use (for example, lying for someone or freely giving them money to fund substance use)
  • Self-blame for challenging relationships, leading to trouble sleeping or stress
  • Physical abuse (in any form)
  • Emotional abuse (for example, constant criticism, name-calling, yelling, swearing and verbal threats)
  • Neglect (failing to take care of, or be cared for, as a loved one)

If you find yourself filled with dread or anxiety about upcoming gatherings or seeing one or more family members in particular, it could be that you’ve reached a point when change needs to be made or boundaries formed. It’s worthwhile to figure out effective strategies you can use to avoid and de-escalate friction rather than let your relationship deteriorate over time, which could have a negative impact on other (non-family) relationships and on your overall mindset. 

What's causing it?

Arguments in families are often started by small things that tend to be linked to a larger underlying issue or past unresolved event or feeling that’s affecting the relationship. There are a few factors that can often be a source of conflict:

  • Perceived disrespect can cut very deep, particularly when it comes from a person you care about.
  • Financial stress can weigh heavily on close relationships and be a source of stress and conflict.
  • Caregiving, either for children or a loved one, can cause a lot of friction, often over miscommunication or disagreements about roles and responsibilities.
  • Philosophical differences related to religion, politics or any number of issues can cause a big rift, sometimes between people who previously got along very well.
  • Unexpected life challenges such as a divorce, medical issues or losing a loved one can increase stress and can strain even the closest relationships.
  • Big events, like the holidays or family trips are a lot of work to plan and often involve a lot of personalities in the same place, which can lead to challenging dynamics.

Noticing these stressors and your own internal reactions to them is the first step. You can then try to find a healthy way to address it to try to improve your relationships, if that is what you want, while also prioritizing taking care of yourself. 

When it comes to most family issues, many misunderstandings can be resolved with clearer communication and a better understanding of the other person’s perspective. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to agree with someone’s worldview to understand it and how it makes them feel.

Keep in mind, however, that sometimes distance and boundaries are necessary to protect yourself in challenging relationships, and you may even need to end a relationship. This is never an easy decision but sometimes is the necessary one. 

Dealing with a rift in a relationship with someone you care about can feel overwhelming and painful. It’s important to consider that the underlying cause could be tied to other issues.

Strained relationships with loved ones can sometimes be associated with or contribute to certain health conditions. Often your family can be a support network and talking to them about your struggles, or their own, can help. But, you can also talk to a friend or trusted person outside of your family, as long as you talk to someone.

How should I deal with it?

Not every conflict with a family member should be viewed the same. If you’re fearful of violence or physical harm or experiencing emotional abuse or neglect, you should seek out help immediately. It’s not your fault, and there are resources you can use as a starting point.

If you’re currently involved in an ongoing conflict or disagreement with a loved one, there are a few potential things you can consider:

  1. Try to accept that there’s no perfect solution. Every person and situation is different. Sometimes the best possible solution may feel imperfect and involve compromise. 
  2. Express that you want things to be better. Aligning with your loved one about wanting to make an improvement to your relationship opens the door to achieving that together.
  3. Talk and listen with an open mind. You don’t have to agree with what they have to say, but calmly listening and reflecting can help you understand where they’re coming from and what other issues may be bubbling under the surface. Try to use “I feel statements” (“I feel worried when you come home late” or “I feel hurt”) instead of blaming the other person.
  4. Be patient. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Take care of yourself and give yourself the space you need to address family drama in a way that supports your feelings, too. You have to take care of yourself first before you can truly take care of others.
  5. Set and maintain boundaries. Boundaries are key to supporting your own mental health and even preserving the relationship when it comes to family conflict. This can involve anything from limiting conversations to certain topics or limiting the length of time you spend at an event. If someone crosses a boundary, you can be clear and direct to them about it.

Things to try

Here are a few ideas of things you can experiment with over time to try and mend a strained family relationship.

Lightbulb Activity
Get introspective
Anger ,
Burnout ,
Sometimes a little self reflection can go a long way. If you need ideas for where to start, pay attention to how every part of your body feels, starting from your head down to your toes. Then try asking yourself: What am I feeling right now? Why am I feeling that way?

Lightbulb Activity
Be vulnerable
Grief & loss ,
Guilt ,
Money issues ,
Chronic health issues & disabilities
"It's ok to not be ok" may be overused—but for good reason. Hiding feelings of anger or sadness might actually make you feel more stressed or isolated. And at worst, could even lead to depression, anxiety, or physical illness. Try sharing how you're really feeling with a trusted friend, family member, or partner. This can help deepen your connection, and get the empathy and support you need. You don't need to tell everyone everything all at once---try starting with something as simple as "I am having a hard time."

Lightbulb Activity
Text or call someone to say you care about them
Grief & loss ,
Guilt ,
Loneliness ,
Sending out a simple text asking how someone you care about is doing can offer mutual benefits for you both. Doing so reinforces your connectedness to others, and helps to remind you that you have support when you might need it.

Lightbulb Activity
Try journaling
Relationship issues & breakups ,
Non-substance addiction ,
Substance use ,
Trauma ,
Worry ,
Grief & loss
Write about how you’re feeling—not only what makes you happy, but also what triggers stress or pain. Experiencing a range of emotions helps regulate stress response, which can mean a healthier immune system. Journaling can also help you take action—you can identify things you want to do more or less of, identify situations you want to change or get help with, and figure out ways to deal with stress in the moment if you know what situations to look out for. While it is tempting to just use your computer, it can be more beneficial to go back to the old pen and paper. The good news is, you only need to journal a few times a week, for 10-20 minutes to get benefit.

What can I do now?

Conflicts within families are often complicated because of the close connections shared and frequent unavoidable interactions. For this reason, it’s important to play the long game and to approach these struggles carefully and thoughtfully. 

Consider making an internal or even physical checklist of what you’d like to communicate and how you’d like to communicate it. Similarly, take time to anticipate how the other person might respond, so that you might feel more ready in the moment. This includes how you might leave the conversation or how you might deal with it afterward.

Preparing ahead of time can give you the opportunity to approach the situation with a greater sense of clarity. Just keep in mind that the other person may not have had the same opportunity to prepare, and you won’t be able to control someone else or their feelings: Give them time and space to process what you discuss.

  • Helpline | Online Live Chat | Text line
    National Domestic Violence Hotline
    Confidential helpline available 24/7 for survivors of domestic violence. Call 1-800-799-SAFE, text "START" to 88788, or message using online livechat.
    Crisis support, Family conflict, Trauma, Online livechat, Text line, Hotline, For survivors of trauma, assault or violence
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    TrevorSpace | The Trevor Project
    TrevorSpace is an affirming, online community for LGBTQ young people between the ages of 13-24 years old. With over 400,000 members across the globe, you can explore your identity, get advice, find support, and make friends in a moderated community intentionally designed for you.
    Family conflict, Trauma, Virtual support group, For LGBTQ+ folks, For young folks
  • Helpline
    Parent Stress Line | Parents Helping Parents
    The Parent Stress Line is for parents and guardians who are experiencing challenges relating to their children and parenthood. It's confidential and anonymous, and available 24/7. Trained volunteer counselors offer a way to relieve stress in an environment which is non-judgmental along with being sympathetic. We offer support to anyone seeking it no matter how big or small. We offer a translation service. Call 1-800-632-8188.
    Family conflict, For parents, Hotline, Crisis support
  • Helpline
    PSI Helpline | Postpartum Support International (PSI)
    Did you know? 1 in 7 women and 1 in 10 dads suffer from postpartum depression. We provide direct peer support to families, train professionals, and provide a bridge to connect them. Call the PSI HelpLine: 1-800-944-4773 OR text "Help" to 800-944-4773 (English) or 971-203-7773 (español).
    Family conflict, Grief & loss, Guilt, Text line, Hotline, For families, For parents, Postpartum Depression, Psychosis, For LGBTQ+ folks, For veterans, Anxiety
  • Website | Online interactive tool(s)
    Sound It Out Together
    Sound It Out provides tools and resources to help parents and caregivers support their children’s emotional wellness.
    Family conflict, For families, For young folks, For parents