Health & Wellness

Coping With Difficult Relatives

You’re not going to change them, but you can change how you deal with them

By Wendy Haaf

Photo: iStock/fizkes.


Does your family include someone you dread having to see because each encounter leaves you feeling angry, exhausted, or even ashamed/guilty? Such situations are always difficult, but they’re doubly challenging when the person is a family member you encounter regularly—the sibling who consistently criticizes you, the opinionated in-law who insists on being right, or the parent who stirs up drama to make himself the centre of attention.

You may not be able to choose your relatives, but you have it in your power to make choices that will cut down on conflict and the resulting emotional turmoil.

Dial Down the Dread

When you have a history of difficult or painful encounters with another person, it’s natural to react with worry and anxiety when you’re anticipating a future meeting with him or her. But not only does that make you miserable longer than necessary, it’s the emotional equivalent of soaking wood with fire starter—a spark is apt to result in flames far more quickly.

“When we start to worry and become anxious about dealing with a specific person, our nervous systems get triggered in preparation for that meeting,” explains Ellis Nicolson, a registered psychotherapist and registered marriage and family therapist in Mississauga, ON. “Then when that cue comes—the person being critical, for example—our bodies go into ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response because we’re already primed for that with our thoughts.”

There are a number of things you can do to help dampen the blaze ahead of time, such as being alert to that worry or anxiety when it arises and responding with deep-breathing exercises to help short-circuit the stress spiral. Doing things that nurture your physical and mental health, such as eating properly, staying hydrated, exercising, getting adequate sleep, spending time in nature, and spending time with supportive people and even pets, also helps reduce this kind of anticipatory stress. “I think we don’t give enough credit to how helpful these things can be,” says Danna McDonald, a registered marriage and family therapist in Winnipeg.

Shift Your Perspective

Give some thought to why you find a particular person’s behaviour challenging. Is it possible your own expectations might be stoking your emotional reaction? For example, if we keep hoping that a given person will magically see the light and change or start doing something differently, “it’s just a recipe for frustration,” McDonald notes. Adopting a more realistic view may help. “Knowing what steps we’re taking in the dance and what we can change can be really helpful.”

Sometimes, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes can provide insight into where the difficult behaviour is coming from. For example, maybe all of the criticism your sister heaps on you for the way you’re caring for a parent actually stems from the overwhelming guilt she feels for not doing more; or maybe your brother is lashing out at you because he’s grief-stricken and depressed over Mom or Dad’s decline.

“Learning to understand more and shifting your view a bit” can sometimes help change how you respond to the other person, says Arlene Consky, a social worker at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto.

“We need to view these difficult people through a lens of compassion,” Nicolson says, “because their outward behaviours are coming from an emotional place, and if we took some time to understand that, their behaviours would make sense. Most behaviours make sense if you try to understand them.”

Recognizing that toxic behaviour such as criticism, sarcasm, and contempt are things people use to paper over their own inadequacies and unhappiness can be helpful. “People project their own poisons onto us, and we have to have the emotional and psychological ability to identify that,” Nicolson says. “As hard as it is to practise, reminding ourselves prior to those interactions that it’s not about us, it’s about them, can change their meaning” and dampen our own emotional reactions, he says.

Set Boundaries

Let’s say that you’re dreading a holiday gathering at a relative’s house because your know-it-all cousin is going to be there. You could plan to stay for only a certain amount of time, or if you’re attending with a partner, you could discuss beforehand how he or she could support you—for example, by changing the subject if your cousin raises a topic that you find triggering. Having a set of strategies in your back pocket for dealing with potential difficult behaviour will give you a sense of control, which has been shown to mitigate stress.

After arriving at the get-together, periodically check in with yourself, and if you start feeling that telltale churning in your stomach, pay attention. If you’re in mid-conversation, “take a big breath and step back,” Consky suggests. Depending on the situation, you could excuse yourself to get a glass of water before continuing the discussion or you could shut it down entirely. “In the moment, we all want to react, and you may do or say something impulsive that you don’t mean,” Consky says.

“We know through research that when a situation gets escalated or super-heated, we don’t think as clearly,” McDonald says. “Tabling the discussion or temporarily stepping away can give you the perspective to respond in a more measured way.”

On the other hand, in the case of more inappropriate or abusive behaviour such as constant jokes or disparaging remarks about your body size, “it’s okay to say, ‘I’m not going to tolerate that and I’m not going to stay if you continue to speak that way,’ and then follow through,” Nicolson says. “There’s no shame in saying, ‘That’s enough, I don’t need to remain here.’”

Consider a Conversation

What if—assuming the other person’s behaviour doesn’t fall into the “inappropriate behaviour” category—you’d like to try changing how the two of you interact? “Ask them if they’re willing to have a conversation as a starting point,” McDonald suggests, and if so, “put the ball in their court and ask when they would be available to talk.”

Strategies such as planning ahead (which prevents one of you from putting the other on the spot and gives you both more time to think) and meeting in a neutral place such as a coffee shop (so you’re both on even footing) may make the conversation less difficult than it might otherwise be. In addition, two other strategies can help keep the discussion from getting too heated: asking clarifying questions (for instance, by neutrally rephrasing what you think the person has said as a query, rather than assuming you understood his or her meaning) and making an effort to listen, rather than mentally leaping ahead.

Of course, there are circumstances that demand working cooperatively with someone whose behaviour you find challenging, such as making decisions about a parent’s care. Here, “the recommendation is to have a family meeting with the designated social worker or case manager,” Consky says. Such a professional can guide the discussion, act as a moderating influence, and suggest possible coping strategies.

Practise Self-Compassion

“When we have a lot of shoulds in our life, we often put ourselves in situations that are bad for us,” Nicolson observes.

“High expectations of yourself lead to guilt,” Consky says. Lowering those expectations, whether it’s recognizing that you don’t have to like all of your relatives or knowing that you don’t have to make an appearance at every family gathering, can help you protect your mental health and maintain an emotional equilibrium.

“Sometimes we’re pretty harsh on ourselves and say things to ourselves that we’d never say to anyone else,” McDonald says. She recommends that if you catch yourself engaging in negative self-talk, try taking a different tack—for example, by reminding yourself that you’re facing a tough situation and that anyone would feel the way you do under the same circumstances.

In some situations, that self-compassion may need to take the form of limiting how much you see a particular person, or even cutting him or her out of your life entirely. “There are certain people in our lives who are going to trigger us a lot more, and when the other person doesn’t own his or her behaviour and continues to be blatantly critical, contemptuous, or abusive, then it’s reasonable not to put ourselves in that environment,” Nicolson stresses. “These kinds of behaviours done over a period of time cause not just hurt, but harm that wears away at us,” he adds, “and it’s hard to heal from that if we don’t remove ourselves from the situation.”

Get Help

While simply describing a difficult situation to someone close to you can relieve some of the associated distress and occasionally even offer insight into how to better handle a challenging behaviour, getting a fresh, unbiased perspective from a trained, experienced professional can be even more valuable.

“Family members and friends have an emotional bias; a third party who doesn’t have that attachment to you is more objective,” Nicolson says. In addition to having training and experience in recognizing the roots of different behaviours and finding ways to manage them, therapists and counsellors can help you better identify and navigate your emotions.

“We talk about having strategies and tools, but the hardest things in life are simply to face ourselves honestly, confront our uncomfortable emotions, and find ways to work through those,” Nicolson says. The right therapist can help you do just that.