Types of family conflict

Updated April 17, 2017

Families are an incredibly complex tangle of relationships between individuals with different and changing needs. Conflict is inevitable and can be a healthy process of growth and problem-solving. It can also be unhealthy, causing undue distress for everyone involved. Being able to recognise the types of family conflict is the first step in moving towards healthy family development.

Communication Problems

Certain communication styles encourage conflict and discourage problem solving. In families with a power assertive conflict style, one family member completely controls the decision-making process. There is a winner and a loser, but no compromise. Some families have an avoidant conflict style. Disagreements are uncomfortable and stressful, and family members avoid directly addressing their problems, often letting issues fester or secretly manipulating the situation behind the scenes. Families with an irrational conflict style engage in endless squabbling. They fight about everything but the real issue and sacrifice important family relationships in the process, according to Sam Vuchinich and Susan J. Messman, writing at

Sibling Conflict

Fighting between brothers and sisters is normal, but sometimes conflict escalates to an unhealthy level. Siblings compete for an important family resource: their parents' time and attention. When kids don't get the nurturing they need, siblings can become bitter enemies. However, each child's needs are different based on his age, his personality and his special needs. These factors might combine in disastrous ways; for example, an independent teenager may deeply resent babysitting, while her little sister or a preschool brother may hate the attention an older chronically ill sister gets.


When a child becomes involved in his parents' fighting, there is triangulation. A child may openly take sides with Mom or Dad and blame the other parent for causing family problems. Sometimes kids involve themselves in more subtle ways. They may act out and get in trouble so that their parents will join forces and stop fighting.

Child Development Issues

Psychiatrist Erik Erikson described child development stages that can lead to family conflict. Kids go through the "Autonomy Versus Shame" stage around the ages of two to four. They realise they can say "no" and do it a lot, driving their parents crazy with willfulness, stubbornness and tantrums. Teenagers in the "Identity Versus Identity Diffusion" stage are figuring out who they are, and it's common for them to rebel, break rules and challenge their parents.

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About the Author

Based in Colorado, Natalie Walker is a writer and child/family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from the University of Georgia and a master's degree in social work from Colorado State University.