by Andrea M. Darcy
From attending family gatherings, to dealing with in-laws, or managing a spoilt boomerang child who has moved back home — what are the best ways to deal with difficult family members?
[Can’t take your family anymore, need to talk to someone, fast? Book online therapy worldwide today.]
9 Ways to handle difficult family members
So what can you do to handle a messy family?
1. Get the timing right.
The only truly productive form of interaction is ‘charge-free ‘ — not coming from a place of anger or upset.
If the environment is stressful and you are emotional, or you or they are exhausted and already had a bad day? Then the timing just isn’t right for confrontation or big decisions.
You are family. You aren’t going anywhere. Let yourself off the hook and step away then talk when you are both rested.
2. Give yourself all the attention.
Here’s the thing about family drama — it can be quite addictive. We find ourselves always talking about it, or constantly approaching the other person, even if we are having the same conflict again and again. Or perhaps you are even codependent, constantly trying to ‘help’ or ‘change’ the difficult family member.
Sometimes the best thing we can do is step back and put our attention on the one thing we do have some control over – ourselves.
Then we actually have energy to deal with difficult people better.
What can you do to increase your self care and psychological wellbeing? How can you get your own life back on track?
3. Communicate clearly.
Despite always being around family, we can communicate with them less than we do with people we just met. We assume family know what we are thinking or want, or that other family members have told them.
Take a moment to write down exactly how you feel about the situation with the difficult family member and the exact things you’d like to happen. Write it like a factual study. If you read this out to the person, would he or she be surprised?
4. Give up the games.
Before you claim you never play games, consider of you are guilty of any of the following communication tricks.
- you pull the past into every discussion (you said, you did)
- or pull other people who aren’t even there into it (well he/she/everyone else agrees that…)
- or even start discussions with other people present then make them get involved
- and you make it a competition (I know I am right).
Go and read our article on “Communication Under Stress” and get honest about where its ‘all going wrong and what you can do to fix it.
5. Get big on boundaries.
We think we’ve made it clear we are not going to drive home a family member the next time they get drunk.
But actually, we didn’t tell that boundary to the person in question but another family member, expecting it get shared. Or we set it in the middle of a fight when there was so much yelling nobody could hear. Or we said it once, quickly, as we rushed out the door. Then we are furious when that said family member ‘dares to call us’.
Boundaries need to be:
- set clearly, in simple language
- said directly to the person in question
- shared at a calm moment when everyone is able to listen
- repeated until heard.
If the very idea of setting a boundary in the first place terrifies you, then first things first. Read our articles on “How to Say No” and “Signs You Need to Set Boundaries“.
6. Listen like it’s the first time.
When it comes to family, we can assume we know what they are going to say. We actually practice ‘selective listening’. Our brains seek ‘proof’ that we are right about the other person then blanks out the rest.
When we don’t listen to someone, we are communicating that the other person is not worthwhile, that we are better than them, that we will never give them a chance. Is it any wonder they keep up the conflict?
Properly and fully listening to someone is perhaps one of the most transformational relationship tools out there. Go read our article “How to Listen Like a Therapist” and try it for yourself.
7. Manage it with mindfulness.
Family visiting for a few weeks? Or can’t handle your teenager and it’s still years until he or she is off to university?
Mindfulness is an incredible tool when we feel trapped by a situation. A series of techniques all geared to help you be fully in the present moment, mindfulness helps you lay aside your upset about the past. You can stop panicking about what is next and just deal with the here and now.
Get our “Free Guide to Mindfulness” and teach yourself how quickly and easily.
8. Switch perspective.
We are not generally born miserable, manipulative, or mean. We become that way because of difficult experiences.
Attempting to see another person’s perspective can mean not that we suddenly agree with them, but that we can stop taking things so personally.
At the end of the day, if your mother-in-law grew up rejected by her own family so that the only person she felt connected to was her own son? Then she would have been cold and competitive to anyone who married him.
9. When all else fails, accept.
Acceptance is not about letting the other person ‘get away with things’.
Instead, acceptance is about realising that the person losing out the most in your desire to bring the family member to justice or force peace between you is… you. You are losing your energy, your mental wellbeing, and often the respect of other family members.
What would it feel like if, even for just one day, you accepted that the other person would never see your viewpoint, never change? Or that you’d never be close and that was okay?
How much of a relief would it feel to give up the battle? And what other things could you do with that energy instead?
The fastest way to handle difficult members?
The problem with family drama is that we tend to turn to other family members for help. But they are invested in the situation. Their advice will be tarnished by their own needs, no matter how well-meaning or how much they love you.
A professional counsellor or therapist is only invested in your wellbeing. They can give you clarity you can’t find alone, and they can be a non judgmental sounding board when it all gets to much. You can learn and practice better communication, and strategies that make your family life that much easier.
Harley Therapy connects you with top London counsellors and therapists who can help you with family issues. Not in London? Our sister site helps book a therapist across the UK, and an online therapist if you are overseas.
Andrea M. Darcy is a health and wellbeing writer as well as mentor who is trained in coaching and counselling. She often writes about trauma, relationships, and ADHD. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy