Difficult Family Members: Dealing and Coping
We either have them or know someone who has them. We’ve seen them humorously or dramatically portrayed on stage or TV, read about them in books or have listened to friends describe their all too colorful experiences. Whether it’s the embarrassing uncle who drinks too much, the domineering sibling, the critical father, dismissive mother or the creepy cousin, most families have at least one difficult-to-navigate family member and sometimes a whole crazy bunch. With the holidays around the corner, this is a time when anxieties and tempers often flair and moods are prone to dip. I hope the following tips are helpful if you find yourself facing time spent with challenging or toxic family members.
- Allow your family member to be who they are. All too often, an individual puts a tremendous amount of energy into trying to change the behavior of a family member hoping the person will be more reasonable, kinder, less addicted, responsible, etc. Chances are, the behaviors you dislike have been around for a long time and have nothing to do with you. Allow them to experience the consequences of their behavior and put the responsibility back into their hands.
- Set Appropriate Boundaries. While it’s true we can’t control other peoples’ behavior, we do have the ability, and I believe responsibility, to take care of ourselves which involves setting limits with family members who cross lines. Boundary setting is not about being right or trying to prove a point. A boundary isn’t something to be debated as valid or invalid but instead is a line drawn in the sand which a family member has the choice to regard or disregard. While control is an illusion when it comes to behavior change of others, boundaries are a positive way to influence the outcome we hope for. Boundaries effectively communicate our desire for something without anger, threat or manipulation and gives the other person a choice and understanding of consequences. Boundaries demonstrate advocacy for self and not coercion of another.
- Put your energy where it counts. Putting your energy and work where most effective is essentially a summary of points 1 and 2 above. When we stop trying to change others, gain insight into our own needs and set commensurate boundaries we start to optimize our energy and effectiveness. We maximize our resources and will feel less defeated, resentful and angry. We can begin to initiate real change within ourselves and step out of what would otherwise be an endless and unhealthy dynamic.
- Establish distance if necessary. Distance can range from putting a little more space between you and a family member or cutting off completely. While I don’t suggest a cutoff, it can be necessary as a last resort if a family member is too toxic and won’t respect boundaries. Usually, the amount of distance is gauged by how the other person responds to your boundaries. This is a very personal decision but can be heavily influenced by how a person is driven by guilt, obligation or ego. An objective third party can be helpful in helping someone determine their best course of action and getting insight into their own internal influences.
- Look at your own part in the dynamic. You can be completely accurate in your appraisal of a difficult family member, but it’s always important to examine your own part in the relationship. Self-reflection doesn’t mean you caused the other person’s behaviors and doesn’t imply giving up boundaries. Your family member can be 90% “the problem” but it’s a good idea to understand your own 10% so you don’t carry it into other relationships.
- Be prepared to grieve. So often when we take our needs seriously, set boundaries and step back from a relationship because a family member didn’t respect our boundary, there is grief involved because we face the reality that the relationship is not what we wanted it to be and we realize it likely won’t get better. When we busy ourselves trying to change others, we can bypass grief because we’re not exercising self-care and too busy trying to be responsible for another person. When we pull back and allow someone to be who they are, grief is often a necessary byproduct. But, if done wisely, grief always brings with it a gift, not to mention wisdom, and redeems our pain guarding us from bitterness and nihilism.
Sylvia Flanagan, LMFT is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in both California and Arkansas offering video based counseling in both states and also offers relationship and individual coaching nationally.