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We Do it Together: Functional and Dysfunctional Family Coping

By Jackson Sims, CEI Intern

It’s no secret that families across the country are facing many new challenges. Between the effects of COVID-19, concerns about employment and finances, and adapting to the increased time and space we share at home, there’s a lot to be stressed about. It’s times like these where family coping strategies can be utilized to their greatest potential. These coping methods can provide greatly needed stability and security in the home. That being said, it’s important to be aware of what practices might keep us from those goals, whether we do so intentionally or otherwise.

What is family coping?

A literature review conducted by Martinez-Montilla, Amador-Marin, and Guerra-Martin (2017) defines family coping as “the capacity of the family to confront, mobilize, and put into action measures to act in… the appearance of stressful events.” While individuals tend to have coping mechanisms that work for them, family coping is more of a collaborative effort. Finding a system that benefits your entire household is key to establishing healthy coping behaviors.

Cooperation is one of the primary strengths of family coping. When a family works together to solve a problem, everyone involved benefits from increased confidence, compassion for others, and reinvigorated family values (Ahmed, Buheji & Fardan, 2020). Functional family coping keeps all of the advantages of individual coping while also strengthening the social connections that bind us together.

One Family’s Story

Our lives at home have changed a great deal in the past few months, and the Nill family is no exception. In this article, Katie Nill, a mother of three, experienced everything our circumstances have to offer: The good (her 15-year-old son walking with his grandmother), the bad (concern for her daughter living in New York, NY), and the odd (her eldest son coming and going through his bedroom window). Despite the challenges they face, the Nills still “find small moments of unexpected pleasure,” setting a positive example for other families in similar situations (Nill, 2020). Their coping methods are sound. What can we learn from them?

  1. Compromises may be needed to keep everyone safe and sane.

  2. Flexibility in expectations can help us manage our disappointment.

  3. We can find moments of pleasure in unexpected places.

How do we recognize “dysfunctional coping?”

When we think of “dysfunctional coping,” our minds immediately go to clearly harmful acts. When under a great deal of stress, we may choose to ignore the problem, hide our feelings from others, or lash out at family members (Sabanciogullari & Tel, 2015). None of these actions support the goal of family coping: to develop solutions as a team. It is up to us to hold ourselves and our family members accountable. Recognizing when harmful behaviors may be taking place is key to guiding ourselves back to a healthier path.

This doesn’t mean that all types of dysfunctional coping are obvious, though. Oftentimes, we’re encouraged to step back from our stressors, instead dedicating ourselves to our jobs, hobbies, or other activities. These breaks can change for the worse if we aren’t careful, though. There may be a fine line between stepping away and ignoring the problem entirely. Recognizing the difference can be a challenge in its own right. Behaviors such as denial, doubt, avoidance, and minimization are subtle, but can be just as harmful as their obvious counterparts (Bingham, Correa & Huber, 2012). By acknowledging the existence of unhelpful coping methods, we take the first step towards actions that benefit ourselves and our families alike.

Functional Family Coping

For every dysfunctional coping method, there’s a functional counterpart that can meet your family’s needs. Some great alternatives acknowledged by Chapel Street Elementary School (Ehmke, 2020) include:

  1. Change your perspective. When we face an obstacle in our lives, it’s easy to dwell on the negatives. Instead, try to view the situation objectively: Have you faced (or solved) a problem like this before? Are the circumstances as difficult as you thought? What are the positives that could come from this? Even a slight shift in mindset can do wonders for your confidence in confronting a challenge.

  2. Make a plan to solve the problem. While this strategy might be best suited for smaller challenges like time management or personal conflict, it can be applied to long-term obstacles as well. In this case, it might be better to think about how to “get past” or “overcome” the problem. There are some issues that we may not be able to solve ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we can’t persevere through them.

  3. Educate yourself. For those larger problems that we can’t solve on our own, it may be helpful to seek out resources that help us understand the situation. What are the biggest challenges associated with your problem? Are there any ways to reduce the strain placed on yourself and your family? Being aware of your status and knowing what to expect can reduce the stress that stems from an unfamiliar situation.

  4. Utilize your support systems. We all have different communities, traditions, and models that we rely on in times of need. Some people may call their relatives or sit down with a neighbor. Others may find guidance through spiritual practices. Think about what resources benefit you and your family the most, and make time to use them when needed.

The best way to change your family’s perspective in the face of adversity is to make positive memories during tough times. Set a schedule for your family by selecting a time or day of the week where everyone is available. Take that time to really engage with one another. Are there any great films you haven’t watched in a while? Try setting up a family movie night! Has anyone picked up a new hobby? Maybe they could teach everyone something new! Functional family coping is all about communication, collaboration, and togetherness. If there’s ever a time to embrace those goals, it’s now.


Ahmed, D., Buheji, M., & Fardan, S. M. (2020). Re-emphasising the future family role in ‘care economy’ as a result of COVID-19 pandemic spillovers. American Journal of Economics, 10(6), 332-338.

Bingham, A., Correa, V. I., & Huber, J. J. (2012). Mothers’ voices: Coping with their children’s initial disability diagnosis. Infant Mental Health Journal, 33(4), 372-385.

Ehmke, R. (2020). Talking to kids about the coronavirus crisis. Child Mind Institute.

Martinez-Montilla, J. M., Amador-Marin, B. & Guerra-Martin, M. D. (2017). Family coping strategies and impacts on family health: A literature review. Enfermeria Global, 47, 592-604.

Nill, K. (2020). How coronavirus has changed us: One family’s story. Boston Children’s Hospital.

Sabanciogullari, S., & Tel, H. (2015). Information needs, care difficulties, and coping strategies in families of people with mental illness. Neurosciences, 20(2), 145-152.


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