How to Deal With Difficult Family Members: 20 Tips and Strategies

Updated August 17, 2021
Woman and her elderly mother

Few people escape the dreaded task of having to deal with difficult family members. Whether you have disrespectful, ungrateful, unreliable, or downright toxic relatives, utilizing healthy communication skills and conflict management strategies can allow you to respond appropriately to family drama, and set you on the path to enjoying family time again.

How to Approach a Difficult Family Member

You can't change how someone else acts, so don't waste your time trying. What you do have control over is how you behave. Debbie Mandel, MA, a stress-reduction specialist and coach, agrees that if you don't like what you see in a difficult family member, then focus on the only thing you can control: how you act and react.

Meet on Neutral Ground

Interacting somewhere you both feel comfortable can help create a calm atmosphere. If you or your family member has major issues tied to a particular location, suggest the event or activity take place somewhere else. Meeting in public places often makes people act on their best behavior, so having Christmas at a rented event space might be more comfortable than gathering at Mom's house, for example.

Focus on the Positives

Before meeting with your family member, think of all the qualities you like about them; and in your mind separate who they are as a person from their behavior. Focusing on the good rather than the bad will prepare you for dealing with the actions that annoy you. This is because your stress level won't already be heightened before you even see the person, in turn making it easier for you to interact with them calmly.

Mentally Prepare Yourself for Interactions

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.

Use Empathy to Alter Your Perspective

Difficult people are not born that way, they become that way due to a combination of nature and nurture. Even though it can be really hard, try to understand their perspective. Interactions with difficult people create incredible opportunities for growth, self-reflection, and heightened emotional intelligence.

How to Talk to a Difficult Family Member

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. The way you speak can influence the mood of any conversation.

Grandfather and grandson communicating

Use "I" Statements

When you use "I" statements, it takes the blame off the person you are speaking to, which then helps them become less defensive. Use phrases like, "I feel threatened by comments like that," or "I am offended by this topic." Start with the word "I" and make the feelings about you.

Set Limits in Conversations

An "I" statement also sets the stage for productive problem-solving. For instance, "I can't talk with you when you are yelling because I am nervous and uncomfortable" can be followed up with, "Can we come back to this conversation at another time when we are calmer?" Sometimes it's better to leave a bad conversation with a difficult family member because the more you talk, the more unproductive the communication, and the conflict could escalate. Tell the person that you will not engage in a nasty conversation, and consistently enforce that boundary.

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." If you feel too overwhelmed by the conversation and would like to discontinue speaking with them 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 Them What They Think You Said

Often people can misinterpret a statement and use it to spark an argument with you. When you sense that coming, ask them something like, "What is your understanding of what I just said?" That way, you will be able to clear up the misunderstanding at the get-go.

How to Act Around a Difficult Family Member

Depending on the type of person you're dealing with and their specific issues, there are different ways you can act around your family member to keep things peaceful. Think about what you know about this person and their typical behaviors, so you'll be prepared to act in a way that is least likely to lead to conflict.

Two senior Family Member

Be Honest

There's a chance your family member doesn't recognize that their behavior bothers you, especially if no one has ever given them feedback on it before. While honesty can backfire in certain situations, it's worth a try to let them know what is bothering you and why. If honesty doesn't work the first time, there's no need to keep repeating yourself.

Avoid Hot Topics

If you know that discussing politics usually ends 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 the person by going to another room or ending the meeting. The key thing is to be calm and assertive and say, "I don't want to talk about this."

Avoid Stressful Situations

When you must interact with a difficult family member, try to avoid activities or locations you know trigger their upsetting behavior. For example, if they don't like to sit in traffic and typically complain about it the whole time, schedule a meet-up when you know traffic is light, or drive separately.

Be Civil and Courteous

It might seem logical to simply ignore the family member who's bothering you, but this can actually cause more issues. Make a point to say "Hi" when you see them and engage in small talk if you can. You can then strategically avoid them during events, engaging only if they approach you.

Keep Tabs on Your Own Emotions

When you are spending a lot of time with a difficult family member, remember to continue checking in with yourself. Note any tension in your body and try some calming techniques to get yourself through the stressful moments. Look for simple ways to take a break, like going to the restroom or getting a glass of water to seek respite from hard and tough times. If you reach your emotional breaking point, you have the right to excuse yourself.

Be Intentional With Your Response

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 make the interaction go a bit more smoothly.

Strategies for Dealing With Specific Problematic Behaviors

While it may not seem fair that you have to find ways of dealing with a difficult family member or one who hates you, remember that you only have control over your own behavior. Focusing on what you can control can make the interactions less overwhelming.

Strategies to Deal With Domineering Family Members

You might have a family member who always takes over conversations, butts in on other people's conversations, or wants to control exactly how, where, and when an event takes place. To deal with a domineering or controlling family member, try these strategies:

  • Give them control over something specific. For example, deciding who will bring what dish to a potluck. This way, they have some power that doesn't hurt anyone else.
  • Don't get caught up in their lies or justifications; remember what you know to be true.
  • In conversations with the person, remain calm and focus on the truth and facts.

Strategies to Deal With Over-Dramatic Family Members

If your family member loves to gossip about everyone, spill secrets, make up lies for attention, and create drama everywhere they go, there are a few ways in which you can respond:

  • Refuse to participate in dramatic conversations by saying, "I am not going to participate in this conversation, if you want to talk about something else I'd love to chat with you."
  • Don't react. Over-dramatic people are seeking big reactions; by reacting you are inadvertently reinforcing their behaviors.
  • Don't try to reason with them or change their mind. You can't rationalize with someone when they are being irrational, and attempting to do so can get you sucked into the drama.

Strategies to Deal With Negative Family Members

Call them Negative Nancy or Negative Ned, these family members are always somber and particularly like to point out people's flaws and mistakes. Dealing with a negative person involves understanding that the problem is theirs, not yours.

  • Be yourself. If you aren't a negative person, don't be negative... even when they are.
  • Avoid problem-solving. Someone who is depressed or always negative will not respond well at your attempts to seemingly "fix" them.
  • Don't take it personally. Their negativity is not a representation of you and your life, it's a representation of theirs.

Strategies to Deal With Annoying Family Members

People who are obnoxious are generally seeking attention. Or they might think they are interesting by being loud and annoying. This can be very aggravating but there are things you can do:

  • Plan a moment for them to be the star from the start. If they get everyone's undivided attention off the bat, they may be satisfied enough to calm down a little.
  • Let them know in a nice way when they're too loud or they've gone too far. Annoying people typically don't realize they're even doing these things; the behaviors could be due to anxiety.
  • Plan quieter, independent activities to lessen your interactions, while still spending time together.

Strategies to Deal With Family Members Who Have Mental Health Concerns

From personality disorders to depression and anxiety, dealing with family members exhibiting mental health concerns can be overwhelming. You might even feel torn between having empathy for them while also losing your patience or energy. What can be helpful is to:

  • Recognize their strengths and focus on those.
  • Understand their behavior is probably not personal or only directed at you.
  • Avoid conversations about their mental health unless they're asking you for help.

How to Deal With Toxic Family Members

The definition of "toxic" is something that is "very harmful or bad." To deal with toxic family members, you need to be able to recognize that they are toxic and learn when it's best to disconnect.

How to Tell if a Family Member or Family Dynamic Is Toxic

If your family member causes you emotional or physical distress, especially long-term distress, they are toxic to your life. Some of the warning signs a person is toxic include that they:

  • Intentionally hurt you often
  • Never apologize for their behavior
  • Consistently require your help even if it causes you to lose sleep, miss work, or other important things
  • Criticize you often
  • Attempt to control all major aspects of your life
  • Abuse you physically, emotionally, or sexually

How to Handle Toxic Family Members

If you're not ready to cut your toxic family member out of your life, there are some strategies you can try to help minimize your distress:

  • Decide your own relationship boundaries and stick to them. You don't need to share what these are with anyone.
  • Be conscious of what you do share.
  • Decline invitations if you need to.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs during interactions. If possible, remove them as options for anyone.
  • Seek therapy to help you deal with family issues.

How to Disconnect From Toxic Family Members

If your family member is clearly toxic and shows no signs of self-awareness, empathy, or attempts to be a better person, it might be best for you to disconnect from them. If you've decided to disconnect from a toxic family member, there are two basic approaches.

  • You can "ghost" them and just cut all ties, change your phone number, and eliminate ways for them to get your contact information. This approach is best for abusive relationships.
  • You can tell them you need a break and avoid responding to their attempts to communicate.

If you disconnect from a toxic family member, inform other family members of your decision so it's not a surprise to them. Additionally, make sure you have supports in place for yourself, and take safety precautions if you think it's necessary.

Focus on Your Growth

As much as you would like tips and advice to make your relationship better automatically, it doesn't happen overnight. Focus on who you are and what you can do to deal with difficult family members as your ultimate strategy. If you feel hopeless or helpless about your family problems, seek help from a professional counselor or therapist. If you think your family members would be open to it, you can explore family therapy.

How to Deal With Difficult Family Members: 20 Tips and Strategies