How to Deal with Difficult Family Members

Marcelina Hardy, MSEd, BCC
Contributor: Gabrielle Applebury
Family Fighting

Do you have a family member you just can't deal with? You want to love her but you just don't know how to handle the things she says and does to you, right? Well, there is hope. Knowing how to approach a difficult family member, what to say and what to do, can help you finally stop dreading every interaction you have with her.

Save Yourself From Irritating Family Members

How to Approach

Family members are who they are; as much as you want them to be different, they won't ever change. The only thing that can change is how you see them. Debbie Mandel, MA, a stress reduction specialist and coach, agrees that if you don't like what you see in a family member, change what you see and how you react.

  • Focus on the positive. Before meeting with your family member, don't focus on how much he irritates you when he does this or that. Instead, think of all the qualities you like about him. Focusing on the good rather than the bad will prepare you for dealing with the actions that do annoy you. This is because your stress level won't already be heightened before you even see him, which will make you more able to tolerate him.

  • Be prepared. Imagine what this interaction will look like specifically based on your previous experiences with this person. Typically, difficult family members have a certain behavioral pattern that is easy to track once you become aware of it. Based on their past behavior, mentally prepare yourself to deal with any possible scenarios you think may unfold. By doing so, you may find that you have an easier time reacting appropriately.

  • Be empathetic. Difficult people are not born that way, they become that way based on the interaction of nature and nurture. Even though it can be really hard, try to understand their perspective. You do not have to agree with their viewpoint, but understanding why may help you interact with them in a calmer way. Interactions with difficult people create incredible opportunities for growth, self reflection, and heightened emotional intelligence.

What to Say

Sometimes, there isn't much you can do to avoid the annoyances of your family member. This is when you should employ some good conflict resolution techniques.

  • Use "I" statements. Tell her, "I feel threatened by comments like that" or "I become easily offended about topics like these." When you use "I" statements, it takes blame off the person you are speaking to, which then helps him become less defensive.

  • Give the person a choice. If the person is doing or saying something that is offending you and doesn't stop when you try to change the topic or when you voice your lack of appreciation for his thoughts, state that the person can either end the discussion or you will have to leave. You can say, "I will not discuss this topic. If you'd like to continue, I will have to leave."

  • Set limits with a gentle tone. Some difficult family members want to run the show and think that people should accommodate them, if this is the case in your situation, try setting limits in kind regard. Say, "I understand that you need (want) to do this, but I have this that I would like to accomplish. So let's figure out what to cut out and what we can do to get it all done."

  • Suggest a break. If you are sensing that the discussion is heading down a negative or unhealthy path, excuse yourself for a quick breather. You can say, "This conversation is a bit intense. I'm going to get some fresh air for a few minutes". You can also say, "I need to make a quick phone call. I'll return in a few minutes".

  • Postpone the conversation. If you feel too overwhelmed by the conversation and would like to discontinue speaking with him say, "I've enjoyed speaking with you. Let's put a pin in this discussion for now". You can also say, "I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed. Let's discuss this another time".

  • Ask what their understanding is. Often times, difficult family members will misinterpret a statement and use it to spark an argument with you. When you sense that coming, ask them, "what is your understanding of what I just said". That way, you will be able to correct them, or give them additional information so they can better understand your perspective.

What to Do

If you have a loved one who is doing things that make you upset, you may want to try the following:

annoyed son
  • Ask the person to stop doing it. Some people want their family members to stop acting a certain way, but never say anything to them. This means the person has no idea his actions are causing any harm.

  • Keep meetings short. Don't plan to spend the entire day with the person because that makes the opportunity greater for her to annoy you.

  • Avoid topics that spark arguments. If you know that discussing politics usually ends up in a heated debate, avoid the topic. If your family member insists on discussing it, try to change the subject. If you can't change the subject, step away from him by going to another room or ending the meeting.

  • Avoid or change the situation that causes your family member to annoy you. For example, if she doesn't like to sit in traffic and complains about it the whole time, you may want to choose to meet her at a time that traffic isn't heavy.

  • Ground yourself when you feel overwhelmed. When you are spending a lot of time with her, remember to continue checking in with yourself. Note any tension in your body and try to breathe through it.

  • Be thoughtful with your behavior instead of reacting. Although it is difficult not to react to annoying or outrageous behavior, pause and think about what you are going to say or do. This can help prevent arguments and make the interaction with him go a bit more smoothly.

Specific Issues

Exploring the nitty-gritty details of difficult family members can help when it comes to better understanding both yours and their behavior. Many factors can impact their behavior such as family role and mental health issues.

Relationship Based Understanding

A big clue to their behavior may be in understanding your relationship dynamic with them. Different themes may arise based on the specific relationship.

  • Uncovering the parent/child relationship. Due to the power discrepancy within this relationship, this dynamic can translate to any relationship where one person has more power than the other. There is inherently a power dynamic within the parent/child relationship, with the parents having more power in healthy relationships. If you are dealing with a challenging parent, take note that even if you are an adult, they may still feel the authority to pull rank. Be mindful of your behavior and how it may be interpreted within the context of power. Any shift in power may unconsciously trigger them to feel like they are losing you, which in turn may cause erratic, difficult or annoying behavior.

  • Understanding the Sibling Relationship. If you have a difficult sibling, you may encounter power struggles, as well as perfectionistic and attention-seeking behavior. Think about why these behaviors bother you. Does a part of you feel jealous of some aspect of your sibling? Does your sibling have or get something that you need, but do not have access to? Try to better understand your feelings about your sibling before you react to their behavior. Often times behavior patterns displayed in childhood show up again, even within the adult sibling relationship. Think about what it was like for you growing up and how that pattern still plays out now.

Family Members With Personality Disorders

Personality Disorders are pervasive, all encompassing maladaptive traits that begin development in childhood, and are fully developed by adulthood. They typically are born out of childhood trauma and unhealthy attachments. Understanding different personality disorders may lend some insight to better dealing with difficult family members who may have several, if not all the following diagnosable traits.

  • Borderline Personality Disorder: People with this disorder have an intense fear of abandonment. They may act in manipulative ways, have intense emotional mood swings, have low self-worth, have a history of unstable relationships and may self harm. If you notice these traits in your family member, make sure to set up appropriate boundaries, check in with yourself often and understand that these behaviors helped them get what they needed in childhood.

  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder: People with these traits may be manipulative, have low self-esteem, act entitled, and lack empathy. Some common behaviors may include acting jealous, having emotional outbursts and behaving in a controlling manner. If your family member sounds like this, be sure to maintain boundaries, keep yourself emotionally safe, and give yourself space if needed.

  • Histrionic Personality Disorder: Some common traits include seeking approval and sense of self from others, seeming insincere, and acting in a highly dramatized way. For this disorder, appearance is held to an unrealistic high standard. If your family member has some or all of these traits, make sure to maintain appropriate boundaries, avoid feeding the cycle of constant approval seeking, and give yourself breaks as needed.

Let Time Heal

Keep in mind that you have some built up resentment toward your difficult family member, which can make changing how you feel and reacting to him or her difficult. However, if you try your best at implementing these changes, giving yourself some time to adjust and not throwing in the towel if you still are feeling yourself break every time you are with him, the situation should begin to ameliorate. As much as you would like these tricks to make your relationship better automatically , it doesn't happen overnight. Give yourself time and soon you'll be able to breathe easier.

How to Deal with Difficult Family Members