How to deal with difficult family members

In every family there are certain relatives who fight, bicker, criticize, or in other ways just don’t play nice. Having to spend “quality time” with these people during the holidays–an already stressful time–can be an emotional minefield. Here are 7 tips for how to deal with difficult family members.

  1. Nurture positive relationships with other relatives. Family is a mixed bag so there are sure to be a few relatives that you like to spend time with. Cultivating your relationships with them will foster positive energy that can last you through the difficulties of family reunions. You can also band together to help deflect negative relatives by agreeing to redirect conversations and attacks to more pleasant topics when the atmosphere gets tense.
  2. Find a higher purpose. Dealing with difficult people is a part of life, so practicing non-aggression and detachment with a troublesome relative may be good, low-stakes training ground. Looking at how to deal with difficult family members as a learning experience can help you from getting emotionally embroiled in their negativity.
  3. Focus on yourself. Difficult people are unlikely to change their ways, and it is not your job to try to get them to do so. You can, however, change the way you react to them. As a way of “finding a higher purpose,” figure out how you can use these interactions to better yourself and your ability to be compassionate, calm and detached–and have a good time no matter what.
  4. Set small goals. Old behavior patterns die hard, so it’s unrealistic to expect that this year will be radically different in spite of your best intentions. Instead, set small goals for how to deal with difficult family members. For an argumentative person, try the Power of Two conflict resolution technique of beginning all responses to his or her opinions with an agreement: “Yes, I can see that….” before expanding on your own contribution with “and at the same time…” Just do this one simple activity and feel proud of yourself for it.
  5. Stay cool using the exit and re-enter strategy. Learn the internal signs of when you start to get sucked into someone’s angry vortex. The moment you start to get heated too, exit the conversation and the room. You can simply say, “I need a drink of water” or “I need a walk around the block.” Re-enter once you’ve calmed down.
  6. Remember it’s not about you. Two relatives arguing can bring down the mood of the whole house. At the same time, remember that it is their fight, not yours. It is not your job to make nice and keep everybody calm and happy. If they are going to be difficult, that is their choice. If they refuse to stop fighting, ask them to go elsewhere.
How to deal with difficult family members takes patience.
Learning how to deal with difficult family members takes patience.

7. Set firm limits. Have empathy for your difficult relative’s problems that may contribute to his sourness–at the same time remember that these are not excuses for terrible behavior. You don’t have to “just take it” because he or she is family. When a family member starts to become critical, argumentative, obnoxious, or mean, say firmly “I enjoy this rare time to have all the family together–let’s not talk about negative things and just enjoy each others company.” In some cases it may be possible to discuss your feelings with the individual beforehand and remind him that he will not be welcome at the gathering if he continues to be inappropriate.

Do you have any advice or stories of how to deal with difficult relatives? Share them below in the comments section or on our Facebook page.