How to Deal With a Dysfunctional Family: Sanity-Saving Tips

Updated December 9, 2019
family having discussion with therapist

It can be taxing to live with dysfunctional family members. You may often feel drained by their energy and confused about how to deal with them appropriately.

What Is a Dysfunctional Family?

A dysfunctional family is one without healthy and appropriate boundaries and behaviors. Examples of this include abuse, poor communication and conflict resolution skills, unhealthy coping skills, parentification of the children, placing children in unsafe situations, placing extremely high and unobtainable expectations on other family members, and behaving unpredictably and erratically. If you grew up in a dysfunctional family you:

  • May have trouble fully trusting others
  • Experience low self-esteem and self doubt more often than not
  • Experience various mental health symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, PTSD, personality disorders, and dissociative disorders
  • May self medicate with drugs and alcohol

Limit the Information You Share

If you do choose to see your family or spend time with them, stay emotionally safe by limiting the information you share with them that they could potentially use against you. Try to keep your conversations more general and shallow and refocus the conversations back on them if possible. This allows you to remain as protected as possible. If you aren't comfortable sharing something, don't. There's probably a reason why your gut is telling you to think twice about disclosing something. To refocus the conversation you can say:

  • "Enough about me, what's going on with (insert topic that interests them)."
  • "I'm doing well, and I'd love to hear more about your (insert topic that's important to them)."

Set Boundaries

You can also verbalize when you aren't comfortable discussing a certain subject, but there's a good chance this boundary will be violated. If this happens, keep in mind this doesn't have to do with you, and they more than likely violate others' boundaries in the same way. Try to change the subject or remove yourself from the conversation. To do so you can say:

  • "I'm not interested in sharing about that anymore, but I appreciate you asking. What's going on with (insert topic you know they enjoy speaking about)?"
  • "I don't love to talk about that, but I'd like to hear more about your (insert a topic that they like to speak about)."
  • "I'm going to get some fresh air, excuse me for a moment."
  • "I need to run and make a quick call."
  • "I unfortunately have to head out early, but it was great catching up."

Decompress After a Stressful Interaction

It is important to not only prepare for a stressful interaction with your family, but also know how to return to a calm state afterwards. Come up with an easy ritual you can get into the habit of practicing as a way to ground yourself after an intense interaction. This can include lighting candles, meditating, going for a scenic walk, or taking a shower. Try a few different routines to see which help you feel better.

Stay Safe in Abusive Situations

If you are a minor and your family has been physically abusive to you, know you have options. Be sure to document as much as you can noting dates of incidents and injuries incurred and contact the police right away. In the meantime, try to find a safe place to stay, such as a family member's or friend's home.

End Contact

In some instances, it is healthier to stop seeing dysfunctional family members instead of trying to stick it out. If spending time with a certain family member, or a group of family members, is causing you stress that is negatively impacting other aspects of your life, you may want to consider setting firm no contact boundaries with them.

You Have a Choice

If you are an adult and you no longer live with your dysfunctional family, keep in mind that it is up to you to decide whether you can tolerate seeing them. If you feel seeing your family is detrimental to your mental and emotional well being, you have every right to choose not to be around them. It is normal to feel guilty, confused, angry, and sad about having to make this decision, but it is important to prioritize your health. If you choose to forgo events and other family members question your absence, you can say:

  • "I'm not comfortable attending the upcoming family event based on a current relationship, but I'd love to catch up with you."
  • "Unfortunately, I'm not in the best place with (insert family member), so I'm just going to bow out of the upcoming party."
  • "I've decided to give myself some space from a recent negative situation I experienced at (insert event) and won't be heading to family events for the time being."

Care for Yourself

Often those who grow up in dysfunctional families feel shame, guilt, and anxiety as an adult. You may also experience symptoms of depression, and post traumatic stress disorder. This is normal, and there are plenty of resources available if you are having a difficult time on a daily basis. Keep in mind the coping skills you developed while living in the dysfunctional household may not be the healthiest, but they helped you survive at the time. Think about how you cope with stress, rejection, and emotionally charged situations. If you are not able to handle these challenging moments the way you'd like to, think about trying some new, healthy coping skills, and potentially seeing a therapist or counselor to further your growth.

Woman painting on easel at table

Engage in Coping Strategies

Often, those who grew up or are still living in dysfunctional households are not taught appropriate self-care techniques. Know this is not your fault and there are plenty of ways you can begin reteaching yourself healthy coping strategies. Experiment with a few until you've found what works best for you.

  • Go for a walk and listen to a soothing playlist when you feel emotionally overwhelmed.
  • Identify your triggers by noting your emotions, the situation that set off how you're feeling, your automatic response to the trigger, and what you'd prefer to do next time.
  • Reach out to a therapist or counselor if you need extra support.
  • Practice breathing exercises to bring yourself back to a calm state
  • Try progressive muscle relaxation to release physical tension in your body.
  • Journal, draw, or paint to help you creatively process the interactions you've experienced with your dysfunctional family.
  • Come up with a mantra for yourself to keep in mind during and after you've interacted with your family.
  • Spend some time with animal. They are natural stress relievers.
  • Plan a fun activity to do after an intense interaction with your family members. This gives you something to look forward to.
  • Treat yourself to a massage or acupuncture to relieve physical tightness.
  • Talk about the interaction or your family in general with a trusted friend.

Know Your Limits

Check in with yourself often if you are living with or visiting your dysfunctional family. Be sure to prepare yourself prior to the interaction and take good care of yourself afterwards.

How to Deal With a Dysfunctional Family: Sanity-Saving Tips