Integral to building strong family supports, this article aims to summarise current research and best practice in navigating family conflict.

Like all the best families, we have our share of eccentricities, of impetuous and wayward youngsters and of family disagreements.

Queen Elizabeth II

Predominantly idealised as the bedrock of society, ‘real’ families embody a complex imbroglio of power hierarchies, monitored roles & responsibilities, self-reinforcing patterns of behaviour, identity struggles, manipulation and intriguing, taboos, and emotional baggage.

What is family conflict?

The potential for conflict exists whenever people have different needs, values, or interests. The conflict may not become apparent until a “triggering event” leads to its emergence. Stages of conflict include escalation, stalemate (hurting), de-escalation/negotiation, settlement/resolution, and peacebuilding.

Family conflict is different from other types of conflict for several reasons including:

1. Family structure: the ‘systemic perspective on families’(1.) takes into account that there are “family subsystems” which are constantly influenced by, and mutually influencing, each other.

To utilise one example, inter-parental conflict, rather than producing one effect (e.g., harsh or inconsistent parenting behaviour(2.)– itself increasing family conflict), it produces a network of effects that then feed back into the family system (via emotional ‘spillover’(3.) and ‘dysregulation’(4.)) to further change the entire landscape of family functionality.

2. Family members are already highly emotionally attached: to some degree, these attachments modulate conflict within families. Indeed, attachment theory informs much preventative and remedial education and intervention work around family conflict.

3. Family contact requires members face frequent, close, and long-term exposure to conflict triggers.

4. Families are often insular, obeying their own rules and resisting outside interference.

5. Families often include adolescents and ‘emerging adults’ for whom the triggers and dynamics of conflict are modulated over time by specific neurobiological changes.

6. Families concentrate and amplify the present and historical behavioural effects of members’ exposure to adverse childhood experiences(5.) including inter-parental conflict(6.).

Is family conflict normal?

In a word, yes. Families benefit from a degree of conflict as it facilitates the creation of new family boundaries, especially around emerging adulthood, where conflict is integral to a reorientation toward peer group relationships(7.).

On the other hand, maladaptive conflict, involving protracted and/or extreme reciprocal hostility and enduring displays of negative emotion, is associated with an increased risk of detrimental mental health outcomes for family members.

..for every negative moment in the (family) relationship, there should be 5 positive experiences.

Relationships Victoria: “Managing family conflict”

Viewed from another angle, the quality and resilience of our family relationships is not defined by a lack of conflict or rupture, but rather by our ability to rapidly and effectively repair any ruptures or conflicts which arise.

What are the main types of family conflict?

Leaving aside disruption (e.g. family breakup), the top causes for conflict are sibling rivalry (generally more frequent and more volatile than conflict across any other family subsystem(8.)), finances and spending habits, child-rearing and discipline, family duties & chores, privacy and personal boundaries, involvement of in-laws, and struggles for autonomy within the family unit(7.).

What are the root causes of family conflict?

Poor communication

One of the most common factors that trigger conflict in a family is a lack of open communication. Without effective communication, it becomes difficult for family members to make sure that their needs are met, and that their boundaries are respected.

The lack of communication may also make a person feel like their needs and desires are not worth sharing. As a result, family members may get stuck in a vicious cycle where previous communication problems create new ones.

The ‘four horsemen’ metaphor of Gottman(9.) illustrates negative communication patterns:

1. Criticism: criticising a family member is different to offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an attack on the member’s core character. In effect, you are dismantling their whole being when you criticise.

2. Contempt: when we communicate in this state, we are truly mean—we treat others with disrespect and ridicule, often name-calling, mocking sarcastically, and using body language and scoffing gestures such as eye-rolling and mimicking. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.

Contempt goes far beyond criticism. Whilst criticism attacks a person’s character, contempt assumes a position of moral superiority over them.

3. Defensiveness: typically an avoidant response to criticism, this strategy denies validation of the others’ perspective, attempts to reverse blame, and seeks to evade acceptance of any responsibility.

4. Stonewalling: usually a response to contempt, stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from an interaction, ‘shuts down’, and simply stops responding to the other person. Rather than confronting the issue, people who stonewall may engage in evasive manoeuvres such as ‘tuning out’, turning away, acting busy, or distracting.

Destructive patterns of behaviour

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 even 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.

Beyond the scope of this article, conflict may be secondary to, and reciprocal with, a family member’s pre-existing patterns/styles of attachment.


Whilst family members are mostly capable of returning to base-level emotional states relatively quickly despite significant variation in emotions experienced throughout the day, some members who suffer from symptoms of distress (exacerbated by anxiety/depressive/trauma disorders and/or the effects of anxious/insecure attachments) will have more difficulty in doing so.

Dysregulated parents, for example, are more likely to display non-supportive reactions to their children’s negative emotions, primarily due to their own heightened and overloaded emotional state(10.).

Studies(11.) indicate that reductions in parental psychological distress reduce children’s emotional and behavioural difficulties which in turn lowers the overall level of family conflict.

Strategies for preventing family conflict:

Hold regular family meetings & maintain a shared calendar.

Consider setting aside time to deal with issues on a weekly or bi-weekly basis so that every family member has the opportunity to speak and be heard. This keeps problems from accumulating and weighing on people for too long. Holding regular meetings both normalises and models ‘talking things through’ and allows more opportunities to communicate proactively.

Clearly lay out everyone’s time commitments to avoid double bookings and minimise rushing around. Reduce stress by being clear about what needs to happen so that nobody is left hanging or disappointed that the things they wanted to accomplish didn’t happen.

Have clear rules and boundaries and back them up with appropriate consequences.

To use the internet/gaming/social media overuse example (especially relevant to adolescents), optimal parenting (defined as ‘parents that care for and protect their child yet respect their autonomy’) and restrictive mediation (which refers to parental rules and regulations regarding children’s media use) are negatively associated with pathological internet use(12.).

As an interesting aside, optimal gaming rules seem to differ according to gender. Restriction may be more important for females to curb excessive gaming, whilst both genders are accepting of non-authoritative parental vigilance and benefit from clear rules about gaming frequency, duration, and time-of-day.

Divide household responsibilities.

Consider establishing a chore chart or similar system to allocate household duties so the home stays orderly and clean and nobody feels like they are the only one doing everything. Be prepared to adjust this schedule when family members have fluctuating responsibilities outside the home.

Consider education & early intervention programs

Administered to individual families or groups of families, programs such as the Triple P – Positive Parenting Program (Univ. Qld, Brisbane) can involve video modelling and feedback, immediate feedback (live ‘in-ear’ coaching) or advice and resources, and may offer separate child-orientated modules including self-regulation, social skills, and assertive communication training(13.).

Strategies for resolving family conflict:

General conflict resolution principles and ‘guides’

Clearly attractive because they purport to distil aeons of varied and complex behavioural modelling research into ‘easy step-by-step guides’, the internet is replete with these acronym-riddled aids.


Similarly, grass roots, corporate and academia-based ‘tip sheets’ extending into every specific of family conflict resolution (e.g. kids driving you crazy), are easily accessible for your critical appraisal (this article included!).

Here follows a limited and somewhat fragmented snapshot of the collective wisdom:

Let any anger subside- ‘soften your start-up’

It’s better to let things calm down before trying to resolve a conflict so that you can have a rational and constructive conversation. When emotions are high, the functional, thinking part of our brains goes offline, and it truly makes it hard to have a reasonable discussion with effective solutions.

Remember that you don’t have to get angry about your differences. You can calm yourself and others by using time-outs, speaking in a soft voice, speaking non-defensively, smiling, using appropriate humour, relaxing, or thinking positively about the family generally.

Complain, don’t blame

Learn the difference between expressing a complaint and criticising:

Complaint: “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.”

Criticism: “You never think about how your behaviour is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish. You never think of others!

Acknowledge an offense

Listen actively and try to identify and understand the hurt you’ve caused, whether intentional or not. Although perhaps painful or embarrassing, ask questions to allow full expression of the others’ hurt (eg . “Did I upset you? Help me understand how.”). This is not the right time for excuses or justifications.

Sometimes, an unconditional “I’m sorry,” is enough, or at least an excellent place to start.

There is, however, little point in recovering from conflict if you intend to repeat the behaviour. Try to be concrete and actionable about how the same situation can be prevented in the future. “Now I understand I’m going to try really hard to…” and “Let me know if I do this again..”. Remember to forgive yourself, too.

‘Speak in the “I”’ and allow others their turn

Start your sentences with “I” so you don’t put others into a defensive position by blaming. Say, “I don’t feel like you are listening right now” instead of “you’re not listening to me.” This also models taking responsibility for one’s own thoughts and feelings.

Brainstorm creative options/solutions

List all parties’ interests and perspectives and use them to think up potential solutions. Write down as many ideas as possible without criticising any. Include even wild ideas or solutions addressing only one interest.

Find common ground and compromises

Identify areas of agreement and work from there. Look for shared goals or interests and build on them. In other words, combine options into win-win solutions.

Accept that you don’t always have to have things your way. Take other people’s preferences and opinions seriously, resist the urge to be defensive, and respectfully listen to others. Compromise is a two-way street; it is reasonable to expect others to consider your opinion and preferences as well.

Try reaching out rather than withdrawing

If you see other family members as a threat, you may withdraw as a way to protect yourself. However, isolating yourself can prolong the issues between you and make it harder to resolve the conflict.

Conversely, withdrawal can indicate stonewalling, ‘silent treatment’ or other passive-aggressive behaviour.

In both cases, courage is needed to forgo these maladaptive conflict management impulses.

How can a psychologist help?

The development of practice called ‘family therapy’ began about 60 years ago and represented a significant paradigm shift in counselling and psychotherapy. Instead of a focus on individual pathology, its focus was on ‘the space between’ people (connections, patterns, processes) in families.

Shaw, E. (2019). Australian Psychological Society InPsych 2019, Vol 41, August Issue 4.

To be clear, not all psychologists offer family therapy (where all affected members attend as a group); it is recommended that you make specific enquiries into a particular practitioner’s suitability for this type of group treatment (i.e. their experience and training) before engaging their services.

Generally speaking, family therapy psychologists can provide impartial third-party family conflict mediation and/or apply evidence-based family therapy approaches that address the root causes of family disharmony or dysfunction.

One of the main challenges for family therapists is to simultaneously manage multiple therapeutic alliances within a single family unit, often needing to engage with several family sub-units or individual members who may be in conflict with others and exhibit different levels of motivation for treatment.

Several therapeutic approaches tailored toward embracing this challenge may be utilised including Family Systems Therapy (easily confused with Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) which treats individuals suffering from family-related issues) and Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT- again, confusingly, both the ancestor and a type of, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) commonly used in individual psychological treatment).

If you are seeking immediate family conflict advice, Parentline (1300 301 300) and related government services may be of interest. If you feel that you or someone you know may benefit from the services of a psychologist trained and experienced in navigating family conflict, please feel free to contact us for more information.


1. Cox, M. J., Paley, B., & Harter, K. (2001). Interparental conflict and parent–child relationships. In J. H. Grych & F. D. Fincham (Eds.), Interparental conflict and child development: Theory, research, and applications (pp. 249–272). Cambridge University Press.

2. Cowan, P.A., et al. (2019). Fathers’ and mothers’ attachment styles, couple conflict, parenting quality, and children’s behavior problems: an intervention test of mediation. Attachment & human development, 21(5).

3. Erel, O., & Burman, B. (1995). Interrelatedness of marital relations and parent-child relations: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 118(1), 108–132.

4. Cummings, E. M., & Wilson, A. (1999). Contexts of marital conflict and children’s emotional security: Exploring the distinction bet ween constructive and destructive conflict from the children’s perspective. In M. Cox & J. Brooks-Gunn (Eds.), Conflict and closeness in families: Causes and consequences (pp. 105–129). Erlbaum.

5. Chainey, C., & Burke, K. (2021). Emerging adult wellbeing: associations with adverse childhood experiences, parenting practices and the parent-adolescent relationship. Australian Psychologist, 56:3, 217-232.

6. Buchmann, N. (2021). Exploration of family conflict dynamics. Oslo Metropolitan University, Faculty of Social Science.

7. Frazer, I., Thielking, M., & Orr, C. (2021) Perspectives of Australian family support professionals on the causes and consequences of maladaptive parent-adolescent conflict, Australian Psychologist, 56:5, 382-393.

8. Pickering, J.A., Sanders, M.R. (2016) The protocol for a randomised controlled trial (RCT) of a brief intervention for parents of children experiencing sibling conflict. Clinical Psychologist, 20:2, 86-93.

9. Fowler, C., Dillow, M. (2011). Attachment Dimensions and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Communication Research Reports. 28 (1): 16–26.

10. Lizél-Antoinette Bertie, Kim Johnston & Suzi Lill. (2021). Parental emotion socialisation of young children and the mediating role of emotion regulation. Australian Journal of Psychology, 73:3, 293-305.

11. Burn, M., Lewis, A. et al. (2019). An Australian adaptation of the Strengthening Families Program: Parent and child mental health outcomes from a pilot study. Australian Psychologist. 2019;54:261–271.

12. Bonnaire, C., et al. (2019). Why and how to include parents in the treatment of adolescents presenting Internet gaming disorder? Journal of Behavioral Addictions 8(2), pp. 201–212.

13. Carr, A. (2019). Family therapy and systemic interventions for child-focused problems: the current evidence base. Journal of Family Therapy 41: 153–213.

14. Şahin, E. S., & Voltan Acar, N. (2019). Rational emotive behavior therapy from a new perspective. Journal of Human Sciences, 16(4), 894-906.

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!

Talk to usWe love to listen!

Please do not hesitate to contact one of our friendly receptionists if you need any further information or have booking enquiries.