Family Conflict

Family Conflict

Key Messages

  • Providing of palliative care by a family caregiver can place significant emotional, psychological and physical stress on the carer and the wider family. [1]
  • Conflict within the family can be detrimental to the person being cared for. [1]
  • Measuring or identifying family conflict is problematic, some tools have had limited success in non-palliative care clinical settings. [2]
  • Families are not always receptive to supportive programs. [1,3]
  • To reduce or avoid conflict within the family unit, supportive programs need to sensitively align the delivery of information with the predisposition of the family members. [4]


No Evidence Synthesis

due to the sparcity of the published evidence


A person may receive palliative care over days, weeks or months and, during this time, care needs such as symptom management, emotional, physical and spiritual are mainly provided by informal carers, family and friends. [1] Providing end-of-life care to a loved one is associated with significant burden and strain and can alter the relationship dynamics between the care giver and care recipient as well as the wider family. The research indicates that when there is conflict within a family unit, poor patient clinical outcomes are observed including lower recovery rates from acute episodes, reduced adherence to medications and reduced quality of life. [1,2,5]

Evidence Summary

Healthcare guidelines for the management of palliative care in several countries note the importance of supporting the carers, although frequently the information is aimed at carers of recipients with cancer only. [1] Despite the detrimental outcomes of distress, burden and conflict to both the carer and care recipient within a family care arrangement, being able to identify risk of burden and conflict is problematic. [4] A 2008 expert review commented that conflict is often caused by a number of sources including historical issues of tension, different coping styles, the division of labour and presence of acute or mental illness within the family. [5] A review by Staccini et al. (2015) looked at tools that might help assess family functioning and found the FAD tool (Family Assessment Device) of clinical merit in both the assessment and management of family conflict; although its usefulness with older adult palliative care recipients and their carers has not been evaluated. [2]

Several interventions have been proposed and delivered to carers and care recipients, predominantly in a face-to-face format. In a systematic review by Candy et al. (2011), authors identified 11 randomised controlled trials (RCTs) evaluating the usefulness of interventions to assist carers with either improved wellbeing and/or grief management, but none looked at practical support strategies. Only one RCT within the review made mention of managing conflict and noted that those families already in high levels of distress were more likely to reject help and, where help was accepted, there was an increase in reported conflict rather than improvement. [1] This finding is mirrored in a review by Shields et al. (2012) who found three studies where grief interventions were more likely to increase distress in ‘hostile’ families. [3] A systematic review of 32 papers looking at psychological distress in families in palliative care found that communication styles differed subtly between genders, with females more likely to be expressive and ‘hostile’ and males more likely to ‘withdraw’ with a failure to communicate. [4]

Overall, the studies propose that active communication can both negatively and positively impact distress depending on the preferred process of communicating between the family unit [4] which raises significant confounders in how best to support families in conflict. In summary, there is a paucity of research on managing conflict within a family in a palliative care setting, [1] and what research has been drawn on in this summary is predominantly of low quality [2,3,6] with low applicability to older people and the palliative care setting. [4]

Quality Statement

More robust and quality research and practice guidelines addressing family conflict, for a range of diagnoses in an older adult cohort and in the palliative care setting are needed. A literature search in 2020 did not identify any systematic reviews published 2017-2020.

Page updated 16 June 2021


  • References

  • About PubMed Search

  1. Candy B, Jones L, Drake R, Leurent B, King M. Interventions for supporting informal caregivers of patients in the terminal phase of a disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011 Jun 15(6):CD007617.
  2. Staccini L, Tomba E, Grandi S, Keitner GI. The evaluation of family functioning by the family assessment device: a systematic review of studies in adult clinical populations. Fam Process. 2015 Mar;54(1):94-115. Epub 2014 Aug 25.
  3. Shields CG, Finley MA, Chawla N, Meadors WP. Couple and family interventions in health problems. J Marit Fam Ther. 2012 Jan;38(1):265-80.
  4. Carolan CM, Smith A, Forbat L. Conceptualising psychological distress in families in palliative care: Findings from a systematic review. Palliat Med. 2015 Jul;29(7):605-32. Epub 2015 Mar 23.
  5. Lichtenthal WG, Kissane DW. The management of family conflict in palliative care. Prog Palliat Care. 2008 Feb 1;16(1):39-45.
  6. Woodin EM. A two-dimensional approach to relationship conflict: meta-analytic findings. J Fam Psychol. 2011 Jun;25(3):325-35.


Struggle or disagreement between parents, parent and child or other members of a family. (Source: MeSH Thesaurus)


Final search

 ("Family Conflict"[mh] OR ((Conflict*[ti] OR fight*[ti] OR argument*[ti] OR disagree*[ti] OR tension*[ti] OR mediation[ti] OR mediate*[ti] OR resent*[ti] OR feud*[ti] OR distress*[ti]) AND (caregivers[mh] OR family[mh] OR sibling*[ti] OR famil*[ti] OR parent*[ti] OR child*[ti] OR relative*[ti] OR domestic[ti])))