How to tell the Difference between Healthy and Unhealthy Family Systems

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Why is the "Family System" Important?

The family is the most basic and foundational unit of the life of a person.  It is where all people begin and start their journey into learning how to be a person.  Family systems are not always healthy, and that can be due to a number of different factors.  There are several ways to differentiate a healthy family system from an unhealthy one, based on things like child temperament, familial cohesiveness, and degree of attachment.  The family has a distinct effect on the growth and development of each person therein.


Healthy Family Systems

At its core, there are two basic dimensions that define a family system, these are Autonomy and Intimacy (Lindblom, et al., 2014).  In the case of Family systems, each of these ingredients has two poles, and each family’s dynamic falls in between them somewhere; intimacy is the degree of withholding or sharing emotions with the unit, and autonomy is the degree of individuality versus enmeshment (Lindblom, et al., 2014).  There is arguably an infinite number of subtle combinations of the two dimensions, however, it is agreed upon by researchers that the healthiest and most effective combination hosts a high level of intimacy, and a high level of autonomy (Lindblom, et al., 2014).  This is the best case and is referred to as the Cohesive Family Trajectory (Lindblom, et al., 2014).

the healthiest and most effective combination hosts a high level of intimacy, and a high level of autonomy
— Lindbolm, et al.

Another very important factor, perhaps even the defining factor, of a healthy family system and healthy development is the level of attachment between a child and their caregiver or parent.  There are 4 different levels of attachment, only one of which is referred to as secure; secure attachment is the ideal (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015, p. 151).  When a child is securely attached, she is more confident, especially in the mother (or primary caregiver) and her ability to be reached if she is needed (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015, p. 137).  Securely attached children are more capable of handling stress and anxiety than insecurely attached children and tend to be more optimistic (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015, p. 155).  Secure attachment is a clear indicator of a healthy family system in most cases, however, there can be times where the marital relationship or the relationship between siblings can put a strain on the overall family dynamic, even if there is a secure attachment to the parents (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015, p. 155).  A child with a secure attachment is likely to have a better social life as well as self-image and self-esteem than a child with insecure attachment and is also more adaptive to incidences of high stress or tension (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).

Unhealthy Family Systems

            There are numerous effects of an unhealthy family system, for instance, if a child lives in a hostile, and critical home with negative family relations, it may discourage the child from asking for help or guidance with emotional problems in the future (Fosco & Grych, 2012).  Another issue that can cause problems for a child is interparental conflict; this can heighten emotional distress, as well as restrict a child’s ability to self-regulate and this can ultimately lead to behavioral problems (Fosco & Grych, 2012). Emotional regulation is the key area of affect in familial discord and this emotional dysfunction can lead to physical issues among children, such as digestive disruption, and spikes in cortisol production (Fosco & Grych, 2012).  In instances where the child comes from a highly enmeshed and low intimacy environment, she is likely to have social problems throughout childhood and is likely not securely attached (Lindblom, et al., 2014)


Effects of Family System on Development

Being that a human being is a sum of all interactions, emotions, and relationships, it is hard to point to one thing that causes another when talking about characteristics that are qualitative, like the emotional ramifications of a family system (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015).  One must not discount that fact that each child comes up in a different home than their siblings did; the dynamics change, the relationships change and mature, and unexpected events can alter the path of a family and altogether change the family system.  There are neurological metabolism increases at certain ages for children that, if the opportunity is presented by the family or parents,  can allow for not only synaptic growth, but also spiritual growth; this happens around age four (Roehlkepartain, King, Wagener, & Benson, 2016). This can have an effect on spiritual wellness because typically a religious family has higher values and more concrete morals, and it allows for a framework that one may not find in a less spiritual home (Roehlkepartain, King, Wagener, & Benson, 2016).


            In summary, the Family system is important to the overall growth an development of all persons within it.  All members of a family system are affected by the actions and emotions of the others.  If a child can be raised in a highly autonomous and highly intimate home with a cohesive family trajectory, there is a better chance of that child being more emotionally and mentally healthy than if she did not.  This does not, however, stand true in all cases, as temperament and the entire realm of nature versus nurture comes into play.  The all-encompassing idea is that there is no guarantee of success, however, there are greater odds of success for a person across the lifespan, if they come from a cohesive and healthy family system.




Broderick, P. C., & Blewitt, P. (2015). The life span: Human development for helping professionals. New York, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.

Fosco, G. M., & Grych, J. H. (2012). Capturing the family context of emotion regulation: A family systems model comparison approach. Journal of Family Issues, 34(4), 557-578. doi:10.1177/0192513X12445889

Lindblom, J., Flykt, M., Tolvanen, A., Vänskä, M., Tiitinen, A., Tulppala, M., & Punamäki, R. L. (2014). Dynamic family system trajectories from pregnancy to child's first year. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 796-807. doi:10.1111/jomf.12128

Roehlkepartain, E. C., King, P. E., Wagener, L., & Benson, P. L. (2016). Human growth and development: Custom electronic edition 2e. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.