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Why Making Change is Difficult and the Root of Family Conflict

Before we talk about families, let's talk about some science for a second and setting individual goals.

Think about the last time you tried to exercise, eating healthy, reading books, or developing almost any healthy habit.

What made this change so difficult?

One element that makes change difficult is homeostasis.

You're trying to not only change your habits, but the regularity of how your body functions.

In other words, your body's inner homeostatic state.

Homeostasis drives us towards keeping things the way they are. Keeping the status quo.

When you make attempts at new habits and behaviors, your body's internal homeostasis is being put at risk.

At the beginning of a new exercise plan your normal body temperature, heart rate, and muscle tension are all being changed from their regular baseline measurements. Your body is shocked by the change, and is screaming at you to stop.

When you attempt to read books again, your brain finds itself wandering from the pages of the book to the flight of ideas, flashy lights, and quick entertaining clips that you normally found while scrolling social media.

This is homeostasis at work with your body, and with your habits.

Homeostasis not only exists in our bodies,

but in our family as well.

We crave the rituals and normals that our families have to offer.

Hugs from mom. Dad jokes. Family dinners. Church on Sundays.

The normal daily experiences of family life is pleasant for many.

But even the unpleasant things that families do are part of the family's homeostasis.

Sometimes "normal" for many families includes many unpleasant things such as:

Physical or emotional abuse.



Constant yelling.

Endless arguing.

Substance abuse.



The list could go on.

Even though all these things are unpleasant, homeostasis continues to perpetuate these kinds of negative events.

According to Prochaska and Norcross in Systems of Psychotherapy: A Transtheoretical Analysis, "Homeostatic mechanisms in families make family systems resistant to change (p. 322).

Making a change in your diet or physical health is difficult because your body is working against you.

Making a change in your family is difficult because the family system is working against you.

You heard that right.

The family system works against individuals even if they are striving for positive change. This is because the ingrained rules for the family are being challenged, threatening order and homeostatic nature of the family.

Threatened change. Threatened order. Threatened peace within the home.

This is the root of most family conflict.

How does this appear in counseling?

As a counselor who has seen many different families and teens for a variety of problems, the presenting problem is typically a teen that is "misbehaved".

We sometimes call this person the "scapegoat".

They are the seemingly obvious problem within the family system.

The misbehavior is more often than not a signal or an attempt at communicating within the family and advocating for change in the family system.

The family system turns against the the initiator of change within the system, labels the communication as misbehavior, and attempts to bring the family back to "normal" by correcting problem behaviors.

The family typically labels the goal for counseling that the "misbehavior" is fixed.

They believe that if the child or teenager changes their behavior that all their problems will go away.

Unfortunately, this is typically the wrong answer and the wrong approach for many families, although not all.

This is part of what makes counseling with teens and families difficult.

There is a lot more at play than meets the eye.

The solution for these situations?

Typically it's a second order change.

Before we get to second order change, you have to know what first order change is.

First Order Change

A first order change is a change in behaviors that creates stability in the family.

It is often a quick solution, either by doing more or less of something.

More arguing. More consequences. More demands.

Less privileges. Less family interactions. Less misbehavior.

Unfortunately, this type of change is easily reversible and is not necessarily a long term correction to the issue.

Second Order Change

Sharon V. Kramer describes second order change as,

"...doing something significantly or fundamentally different from what you have done before. The process is usually irreversible. Once you begin, it becomes impossible to return to the way you were doing things before. It requires a new way of seeing things and is a transformation to something that is quite different—a more desired state. It requires new learning and a shift in beliefs."

Second order changes are changes to the rules, guidelines, and potentially even structure of the family system.

Changing the Rules of Engagement

Consider the rules that are being broken or violated.

Are parental demands not being followed? Are the rules for conflicted being challenged such as yelling instead of staying calm? Are the parents being disrespect? Is the teen being disrespected?

Think about what rules are being violated and what the expected normal should be.

Does the "misbehaved" member in your family have a differing expected normal?

Can a compromise be made for a new normal?

Ex: A new curfew time is established, or date/family nights are scheduled on Fridays.

How can you set new rules into the system that interfere with dysfunctional rules?

My teen has a dysfunctional rule that they complain when they are given a chore to do.

The dysfunctional/problem rule for a parent might be to become angry enough to scare their teen into not complaining anymore. See the problem here? While this type of reaction often will work in the short term, in the long term this rule creates a rift in the relationship.

We have to change the rules of engagement.

You can't alter your teen's rules (although most would like to).

So you start with your own.

Instead of scaring your teen into submission, do something fundamentally and significantly different.

Ex: Join them in the complaining in a goofy manner.

You might say, "These dishes are just so heavy your little arms are going to explode."

Maybe try it with a Johnny Depp, Willy Wonka accent.

This new rule may just interrupt the old cycle that you used to find yourself in.

This is just one opportunity for application.

Once you start to uncover the family rules that are leading to problems, you can start to adjust them and make changes in the family.

Again, it's not easy. And it's likely that the beginning changes you attempt to make will be met with resistance. But if you focus on the rules of the game in the family system, you are much more likely to make lasting and meaningful change.

Be creative. Have fun. Don't give up.

If you are having issues with changing negative family dynamics in your home, it might be time to schedule an appointment with a therapist.

A well trained therapist can help you identify family rules, and plan interventions to disrupt the system in order to work towards a new normal for your family.

If you live in Northwest Arkansas you can schedule an appointment with Teen Focused Counseling.


Jesse is a Licensed Associate Counselor in Northwest Arkansas. When Jesse was growing up, he had people with deep character pour into his life, motivating him to be the change that he wanted to see in the world. Jesse wants to pass that on to others by providing encouragement, support, and smiles to the individuals he works with through counseling, volunteering, networking, and writing. Jesse believes every person has the ability to become the best versions of themselves given they take intentional action towards their goals, give it time, and allow themselves to experience grace along the way.



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