Despite frequent moments of tenderness and humour, family relationships in the novel are often presented as difficult.
While there is a lot of warmth and intimacy in the Clarke family at the start of the novel, Doyle foreshadows the impending breakdown in the parents’ marriage early on.
In a totally unrelated account of his red hot water bottle, Paddy ominously ponders, “Sometimes when nothing happened it was really getting ready to happen.”
On the day trip to Dollymount, the family seem united and they share some touching and fun moments. But during the trip Paddy senses there is a distance growing between his father and mother when he says, "She wasn’t enjoying herself”.
Their relationship becomes progressively worse as Paddy’s narrative develops, and he is increasingly affected by his parents' arguments. In one description he rocks back and forth, seemingly to comfort himself when he hears his parents arguing.
Paddy is also very aware of the family tensions in the lives of the numerous characters in his neighbourhood. The first family we are introduced to is that of Liam and Aidan O’Connell, and the first thing we hear about them is that their mother is dead.
Although Paddy and Kevin discuss how “cool” it would be to have a dead mother, it rapidly becomes clear that their family circumstances are difficult. We find out that their father is not coping. He drinks too much and neglects to look after his sons.
The boys have crisp sandwiches for lunch, which seems to Paddy very exciting compared to the cheese and ham ones his mother packs for him. However, later on when Paddy’s parents are experiencing difficulties of their own Paddy himself is given money for crisp sandwiches.
As the novel progresses, Paddy’s situation begins to parallel more and more that of the O’Connell family.
On the first page we find out about Mr Hennessey’s sensitive response to Liam when he soils his trousers - later on the teacher shows the same sensitivity to Paddy when he falls asleep due to the exhaustion of staying up all night because of his parents’ fighting.
As well as the conflict between Paddy’s parents, there is also sibling conflict between Paddy and Sinbad.
Paddy is frequently cruel to Sinbad, giving him a “dead leg" at one stage. During the attack with the lighter fuel Paddy states, "I just wanted to hurt him”.
However - as the novel progresses and the troubles between Mr and Mrs Clarke intensify - Paddy begins to see Sinbad in a new light. When Paddy realises that his friends don’t really care about him he says, “I realised something funny; I wanted to be with Sinbad.”
Sinbad is the only one who really knows what Paddy is going through at home, and as he grows up Paddy becomes more sympathetic to and more appreciative of his brother.