Families are surprisingly resilient, usually able to withstand and recover from severe conflict between family members and quickly return to familiar interactive patterns (Goldenberg, 2017).
It is perhaps unrealistic to expect that relationships remain harmonious all the time; occasional disconnections and disagreements are a fact of life that can help a family grow and move forward, accommodating change (Divecha, 2020).
Repeating patterns of conflict, however, can be damaging for family members, especially children, negatively affecting mental and physical wellbeing (Sori, Hecker, & Bachenberg, 2016).
This article explores how to resolve conflict in family relationships and introduces strategies and activities that can help.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Communication Exercises (PDF) for free. These science-based tools will help you and those you work with build better social skills and better connect with others.
This Article Contains:
- How to Resolve Conflict in Family Relationships
- 2 Examples of Conflict Scenarios
- 3 Strategies for Family Counseling Sessions
- 6 Activities and Worksheets to Try
- A Note on Conflict Resolution for Kids
- 3 Best Games and Activities for Kids
- Resources From PositivePsychology.com
- A Take-Home Message
How to Resolve Conflict in Family Relationships
“Families typically develop certain basic structural characteristics and interactive patterns that they utilize to respond to internal and external stressors.”
Goldenberg, 2017, p. 4
Built on shared assumptions and narratives that exist within the family structure, family members support the group as it adapts and copes with shifting environments and life events.
Such structures, at times, may support and even promote conflict that occurs within families. Indeed, rifts, clashes, and disagreements within the family can take many forms, including physical, verbal, financial, psychological, and sexual (Marta & Alfieri, 2014).
Therapy has the potential to help a family understand how it organizes itself and maintains cohesion, while improving how it communicates and overcomes problems that lead to conflict (Goldenberg, 2017).
As psychologist Rick Hanson writes, “a bid for repair is one of the sweetest and most vulnerable and important kinds of communication that humans offer to each other” (cited in Divecha, 2020).
Crucially, families can learn to navigate the inevitable tension and disconnection that arise from falling out of sync with one another (Divecha, 2020).
Repairing ruptures resulting from miscommunication, mismatches, and failing to attune to one another is vital for parenting and maintaining family union. But how?
While there are many ways to recover from and resolve conflict, the following four steps are invaluable for authentic repair (modified from Divecha, 2020):
- Acknowledge the offense
Try to identify and understand the hurt you’ve caused. Whether intended and with apparent good reason or not, this is a valuable opportunity to dial down your defenses and focus on how the other person is feeling.
Acknowledging the hurt without adding caveats is a powerful way to show humanity.
It can help to check your understanding, “Did I upset you? Help me understand how.” Your approach must be open and authentic; unless heartfelt, it risks escalating emotions.
- Express remorse
Sometimes, simply saying, “I’m sorry,” is enough, or at least an excellent place to start.
Take care though. Adding a comment, such as, “Well, you shouldn’t have done X,” weakens your expression of remorse, especially when dealing with children. They are learning from what you do – right and wrong.
Also, don’t go overboard. Being too quick to say sorry or going over the top with an apology can make it more about yourself than the person hurt.
- Offer a simple explanation
If the other person is ready to listen (neither too upset nor too angry), a brief explanation can clarify the thinking behind your actions.
Remember to focus on the other person’s experience rather than a litany of excuses for poor behavior. And avoid using this as an opportunity to add grievances or assign blame for issues that have arisen recently.
- Learn and practice expressing your intentions to fix the situation and stop it from happening again.
Be sincere. Say that you are sorry and mean it.
There is little point in apologizing and recovering from conflict if you intend to repeat the behavior.
Conflict is often avoidable. But if it isn’t, then it is possible to recover and maintain family relationships through authentic activities that repair damage (Divecha, 2020).
2 Examples of Conflict Scenarios
Recognizing another family member’s hurt and finding the compassion and understanding to resolve the conflict is an essential element of family therapy (Goldenberg, 2017).
Family therapy can help resolve conflicts within the family unit through multiple routes, including:
- Exploring various relationships that make up the family.
- Bringing couples and families together to resolve interpersonal conflicts rather than treating them separately.
- Focusing on interventions with entire families rather than individuals.
- Establishing the role of dysfunctional families in individual mental health problems.
Family conflict can appear in all shapes and sizes. While minor disagreements between siblings may be resolved quickly, major rifts can form between child and parent, damaging previously strong bonds.
All relationships within a family can at one time or another descend into conflict. Two such examples include (modified from Goldenberg, 2017):
- Conflict over money
Bob and Tess are married with two children. In therapy, Tess claims that Bob is mean with his money: checking grocery bills and yelling at the cost of their children’s birthday presents. Along with other relationship issues, conflict had led them to sleep in separate rooms.
Bob argues he works hard for his money and gives her a generous amount each month, but Tess spends beyond their means.
During therapy, it became clear that Bob comes from a working-class family and was taught from an early age to live frugally. His long-standing beliefs underpin (but do not excuse) his outbursts.
In time, therapy helps them become more supportive of one another, giving up their underlying power struggles and successfully moving away from stereotypical gender roles.
- Cultural and intergenerational conflict
Despite Indira and Sanjay Singh moving to the United States while they were still at preschool age, they have retained the cultural and moral values of their place of birth: India. When their two children were born, they were also taught to be compliant and respect their parents, while friends from school were discouraged.
As the children grew older, it became clear that the conflict between the old and new culture was causing a rift, dividing children and parents. Despite reluctance from the parents, in time, all four attended family therapy and began to deal with cultural differences and expectations arising from multiculturalism.
Family therapy helped the clients recover from existing conflict in both cases, while strengthening family bonds to reduce future tension.
3 Strategies for Family Counseling Sessions
Conflict in family situations can be “chronic and unresolved,” cycling through “periods of emotional distance and closeness with intense negative feelings” (Metcalf, 2011, p. 45).
In family therapy, the many theories offer different lenses through which to view the world and, most importantly, help families manage and resolve conflict (Metcalf, 2011).
The following strategies can help protect the family from or cope with conflict in its many forms.
Build an environment of connection and understanding
Divecha (2020) suggests that by building an environment of connection and understanding, you can “create a family culture where rifts are expected and repairs are welcomed.”
Encourage clients to make small but vital changes to the family setting (modified from Divecha, 2020):
- Watch out for the easily missed signs that indicate a child, young adult, or partner wishes to find a way to reconnect and recover from conflict.
- Normalize requests, such as, “I need a repair” and “Can we have a redo?” that tell us a family member is ready to fix a damaged relationship.
- Maintain awareness. If we think we may have caused upset or harm, circle back and check in with the other person.
Building a better environment through frequent repairs can catch problems early and reduce the likelihood of escalation.
Use “I” statements
How we say something can have a significant impact on what others hear. Encourage family members to express how they feel without blaming others, such as (modified from Goldenberg, 2017):
“I am hurt by what you said last night” rather than accusations, such as, “You were out of order last night.”
Speak directly to the therapist
There may be times during a therapy session when tension between family members heightens and the emotional intensity needs to be de-escalated (Goldenberg, 2017).
A helpful communication technique is to ask the family member talking to address the therapist directly. This refocus encourages the speaker to express themselves more calmly and allows the other person time and space to listen and respond under less pressure.
6 Activities and Worksheets to Try
Interventions in family therapy exist to help the individual by improving family engagement and effectiveness and reduce the adverse outcomes of caregiving (American Psychological Association, 2011).
The following activities focus on exploring family structures, beliefs, and problem-solving behavior to avoid or resolve conflict within the group.
Recognizing Family Narratives
Family narratives provide support for coping with upsetting events and recovering from conflict (Goldenberg, 2017).
Use the Recognizing Family Narratives worksheet to identify narratives that explain and justify the structure and interactive patterns that exist within the family.
The constructs we form can enable or inhibit how we cope with conflict and other life events within the family (Goldenberg, 2017).
Parenting With Purpose
Parenting can be difficult; it is easy to lose sight of what is important. Defining meaning and purpose for ourselves as parents and our children can offer a valuable compass for day-to-day decision-making (Hart, 2006).
The Parenting With Purpose worksheet is a helpful reminder of your values and purpose as a parent.
The answers to the questions can help you understand what kind of relationship you would like with your children and why.
What Is Working Within the Family?
While it is essential to identify and fix what is causing conflict within a family, it is equally valuable to recognize what is working.
Once we recognize where we are successful in a relationship, it can remind us that not everything is terrible. We are doing some things right, and we have something upon which we can build.
The What Is Working worksheet helps identify and share the positives in the relationships within the family.
Recognize that conflict doesn’t occur in the family all the time and encourage the activities that unite you as a group.
Meeting Our Family’s Needs
Sura Hart (2006, p. 175), former teacher and education project director for the Center for Nonviolent Communication, says that “you can find conflict in every human story, and in the conflict situation you can find the needs people are wanting to meet.”
Use the Meeting Our Family’s Needs worksheet to help each family member have their needs heard, understood, and, ultimately, accepted.
Consider Your Intentions
Words have the power to share love and anger. Without clear and conscious intention, it is possible to communicate unhelpful and even harmful messages (Hart, 2006).
Use the Consider Your Intentions worksheet to identify and understand your intentions and help you respect and care for other family members’ needs.
Perform an early check on your intentions before you engage with the other family member, especially if it has the potential to turn into conflict.
Using the answers, consider how you can show positive intentions and steer clear of harmful intentions, such as proving yourself right.
Seeing Family Conflict as a Problem to Solve
Conflict isn’t always to be avoided; clashes can be productive, stimulating learning, fostering understanding, and moving a relationship forward (Hart, 2006).
However, some conflict is unnecessary and avoidable, especially regarding daily tasks, such as tidying the house, going to bed, and completing chores.
Use the Seeing Family Conflict as a Problem to Solve worksheet to help recognize everyday actions as problems to overcome rather than points of contention.
A Note on Conflict Resolution for Kids
“Life is a series of mismatches, miscommunications, and misattunements that are quickly repaired” says family researcher Ed Tronick (cited in Divecha, 2020).
Children can learn from the family environment that conflict need not be out of proportion to the situation and may, ultimately, lead to positive change.
It helps when family relationships are overwhelmingly positive. Make sure to make “special time” available for each child, where they have control over what you do and for how long, writes Divecha (2020). Learn to show gratitude and appreciation for what the child does more readily without it becoming predictable and unthinking.
3 Best Games and Activities for Kids
Engaging in play can help us become more comfortable in the world of childhood, breaking down barriers between parents and children and offering safe opportunities to talk without descending into conflict (Sori et al., 2016).
Board games such as Monopoly, Checkers, and Life can be played as a pair or a family. The children see that it’s okay to make mistakes and learn from their parents’ reaction to losing.
More physical, active games such as Tag or Hide and Seek allow the whole family to have fun, while, importantly, seeing each other having fun. Children need to experience their parents as humans with a wish to enjoy themselves. Parents benefit from experiencing their family laughing – a reminder that life is not all about duty and rules.
Quieter pastimes, including art and craft, can be a time to build and use mindfulness practices, considering colors, textures, and smells. Interactive activities such as making funny characters out of play dough or houses out of Lego is fun and beyond rules or feelings of failure.
Resources From PositivePsychology.com
Family conflict can often be avoided. The following resources help individuals gain a greater understanding of other family members’ needs and feelings.
- Mind the Gap
Identify and share the values you would like to exist within your family, such as love, trust, compassion, and teamwork.
- Conflict at School
Conflict outside the home can have an impact inside. Help your children to reflect on the relationships they have at school.
Additional reading and resources include:
- Conflict Resolution in Relationships and Couples: 5 Strategies
For more ideas on how to resolve conflict in other types of relationships, read our conflict resolution in relationships article.
- 14 Conflict Resolution Strategies & Techniques for the Workplace
This article about conflict resolution in the workplace is a helpful additional read, especially where the lines between family and work is blurred – working in the family business, working from home – these all can cause conflict so be sure to have a look at this article too.
- 17 Positive Communication Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others communicate better, check out this collection of 17 validated positive communication tools for practitioners. Use them to help others improve their communication skills and form deeper and more positive relationships.
A Take-Home Message
It is vital that families learn to survive – and even grow – under adverse conditions. The family unit faces daily challenges from outside and conflict from within that can upset the internal stability that rests upon existing narratives, shared beliefs, and sometimes mistaken assumptions (Goldenberg, 2017).
It can become less about preventing all conflict, which is impossible, and more about creating a family environment that reduces unnecessary friction, repairs rifts and misunderstandings, grows, and moves forward.
Our communication – what we say and how we say it – remains crucial and can improve over time with practice and an improved awareness of one another’s needs. Family members can also learn skills and techniques to improve self-regulation, resilience, and coping that strengthen internal structures.
This article introduces tools and worksheets that help remove avoidable conflict and manage and resolve it within the family unit, where disagreement is inevitable. Try them out with your clients or within your own family to improve engagement, strengthen relationships, and build a more supportive and resilient family structure.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Communication Exercises (PDF) for free.
- American Psychological Association. (2011). Family interventions. Retrieved October 6, 2021, from https://www.apa.org/pi/about/publications/caregivers/practice-settings/intervention/family
- Divecha, D. (2020, October 27). Family conflict is normal; it’s the repair that matters. Greater Good. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/family_conflict_is_normal_its_the_repair_that_matters
- Goldenberg, I. (2017). Family therapy: An overview. Cengage Learning.
- Hart, S. (2006). Respectful parents, respectful kids: 7 Keys to turn family conflict into co-operation. PuddleDancer Press.
- Marta, E., & Alfieri, S. (2014). Family conflicts. In A. C. Michalos (Ed.), Encyclopedia of quality of life and well-being research. Springer.
- Metcalf, L. (2011). Marriage and family therapy: A practice-oriented approach. Springer.
- Sori, C. F., Hecker, L., & Bachenberg, M. E. (2016). The therapist’s notebook for children and adolescents: Homework, handouts, and activities for use in psychotherapy. Routledge/Taylor & Francis.