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Fall 2014 Edition


Tips For Dealing With Difficult Family Members


  • Is there someone in your immediate or extended family who gets on your nerves?
  • Do you sometimes find yourself distracted or impatient at work because you are thinking about a mother-in-law, brother-in-law, parent, child, or sibling who was insensitive or obnoxious during a recent phone call or visit?

"You are not alone," says Leonard Felder, Ph.D., who has been counseling individuals and families for over 25 years. In his book, When Difficult Relatives Happen To Good People, Felder interviewed 1,358 men and women about their family situations and found that over 70% of us have a frustrating or difficult relative who keeps stirring up conflicts. Felder suggests, "It's normal to have some stressful family interactions and your relatives probably won't change overnight. But there are specific things you can do to significantly change how you respond to these difficult individuals who are in your life for the long-haul."

Are You Carrying Unfinished Business About a Family Member?

Felder warns of five crucial signals that your family stresses are starting to affect you physically or emotionally. See how many of these sound familiar about you or someone you know:

  1. Is there someone in your family who tends to criticize you or give you harsh advice that makes you second-guess your financial well-being or your appearance?
  2. Do you sometimes find yourself physically tired or in a bad mood because of a recent unpleasant conversation or unresolved situation with a family member?
  3. Do you ever find that after a phone call or visit with one of your problematic relatives you tend to “take the edge off” by indulging a bit more than usual in food, alcohol, drugs, or other habits?
  4. Do you sometimes feel weighted down financially or emotionally because you are trying to help a family member who doesn’t seem to appreciate your efforts?
  5. Do you ever secretly wish your family was a little less difficult or a lot more supportive?

If one or more of these signals applies to you, there are two different ways to respond. The most common response is “denial.” According to Dr. Felder, “The majority of people attempt to ignore that there are frustrating issues happening in their family.” On the other hand, there is a healthier way to respond – to use proven techniques for dramatically improving your family interactions.

Suggestions To Help

Rather than letting your unresolved family conflicts continue to eat away at your insides, there are specific steps you can take, including:

-- Build a stronger alliance with the family members you do enjoy. Make sure you set aside a few minutes each week or each month to check in and strengthen the connection you have with siblings, cousins, in-laws and relatives who are sensible and caring. You might even ask one of your more well-respected relatives to speak up on your behalf the next time you are having a conflict with one of your more difficult family members. Felder recommends, “Ask ahead of the next family gathering for your most supportive relative to say to your often-critical family member, ‘Hey, that’s enough negative comments about Chris. From now on, let’s find something positive to talk about when the family gets together’.”

-- Remind yourself whenever necessary of the higher reason why you’re trying to learn to deal with this person. It might be that this difficult relative is married to someone in your family that you do love and that you don’t want to hurt. Or it might be that dealing with this challenging family member is an opportunity to learn important lessons about patience, persistence, setting good limits, or making an outsider feel welcomed. Or it might be that you and this other person are both a little too stubborn and possibly this family conflict is a chance to work on finding a middle ground. Make sure to keep your higher reason in mind so that your efforts will feel worthwhile.

-- Be prepared to set “compassionate limits” with your difficult relative. Instead of letting this person treat you like a doormat, or else raging in anger when he or she treats you badly, a more effective and mature approach is to set “compassionate limits.” You can be compassionate but firm as you say, “I care about you and I know you care about me. So let’s take a few minutes with each of us suggesting what we can do to make our next phone call or visit more satisfying for both of us.” Felder suggests, “Instead of your reacting like a frustrated child, I’ve found with hundreds of counseling clients that when you take charge and offer these ‘compassionate limits’ you will sound and feel like a competent manager and a worthwhile adult. You will be preventing the usual power-struggle with this negative relative and instead turning your conversation with this person into a creative brainstorming session that uncovers positive alternatives.”

-- Make sure to set small, achievable goals for what constitutes success with a difficult relative. If your relative has a basic personality that is hyper-critical, extremely self-absorbed, or exceedingly stubborn, don’t set up an unrealistic expectation that this person is going to be easy. Instead, Felder recommends that you set for yourself a realistic small goal that will allow you to feel successful. For example, if a ten minute phone call or a two hour visit is the most you can handle with a particularly unpleasant relative, don’t volunteer for a sixty minute phone call or a seven day visit that is bound to turn out badly. Or if your relative has a habit of giving you too much advice, set a new realistic goal for your interactions, such as: “I’ll listen to one piece of advice and say, ‘That’s interesting. I’ll consider it,’ without getting into a big debate or war this time.” When it comes to difficult family members, it’s good enough to just keep your interactions brief and civil, while remembering to say to yourself, “I don’t need to change this person’s basic personality—I just need to stay healthy, calm and relaxed no matter what he or she does.”

-- Pick one location, activity or topic you and this person both enjoy. Rather than just repeating the same old interactions that haven’t worked for years, why not try something new this time—be proactive and schedule a brief activity that has a high likelihood of bringing out the best in both of you. Is there a TV show, a type of movie, an art museum, a music event, a nature walk, or some old family photo albums that the two of you can do together peacefully? Make sure you set up at least one successful way of connecting with this person so you can build up some resilience for when he or she becomes difficult once again.

Contact Your EAP For Help

Do you need help dealing with a difficult family member or other family issue? Remember, your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) can provide free and confidential counseling to help you or your dependents with any type of personal, family or work-related concern. If you need help, why not call an EAP counselor today? We’re here to help you.

 
   
 

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Disclaimer: This newsletter is not intended to provide medical advice on personal wellness matters. Please consult your physician for medical advice.