Keeping It Relative: 5 Ways To Deal With Difficult Relatives

There’s one in every family. That one person, be it a toxic mother-in-law, a cantankerous grandparent, or an overbearing uncle, upsetting the mood at every family event. You know which one, that difficult relative who knows exactly how to push your buttons and make you crazy.

You cannot rid yourself of them completely – they are family, after all. However, you can keep things relative and maintain your peace by learning how to deal with difficult people, a skill that will help you in all aspects of your life.

Consider How You Want To Behave

Take some time before the family event to consider how you want to behave. Avoid reacting in the moment by thinking about how you want to act when a hot-button topic arises. Make a plan to stay calm and manage your thoughts and feelings. Think about how you can positively contribute to the outcome of a difficult conversation.

For instance, if you know that your uncle is going to challenge your political views just to get a rise out of you, avoid engaging by planning ahead to deflect. Say something like “Let’s agree to disagree,” or “Let’s spare the family.” Keep it light-hearted and turn your attention to another, more neutral, topic.

By preparing ahead of time and anticipating challenges, you will safeguard yourself against falling unwittingly into the trap laid out by manipulative or toxic relatives.

Limit Alcohol Intake

If you drink alcohol at family functions, do so in moderation. Alcohol has been shown to reduce inhibitions in a destructive way and increase aggressive or argumentative behavior in some people. If this describes your reaction to alcohol, then avoiding it may lead to a more peaceful encounter with difficult family members.

Likewise, if alcohol tends to make your family members belligerent, then encourage them towards other drinks and away from indulging altogether. Serve non-alcoholic punch and have alternatives ready at hand.

Keep the Difficult Person Busy

Find a job for the difficult family member to do and let them do it their own way. Often, conflict can arise when a person no longer feels useful. By offering a job to do in the kitchen or setting the table, or some similar task, you help the difficult person to focus on something other than themselves. Adding to the family event makes them feel important and needed.

Be sure to allow them to accomplish the task in their own way. Don’t fuss or strive for perfectionism. Allowing the day to unfold with its many memories, both good and bad, will allow everyone to enjoy the day.

Have Realistic Expectations

Don’t expect people to change when they have behaved the same way for years. A family member with narcissistic personality disorder will not suddenly muster up empathy for you or your life. You need to accept the person for who he or she is, even if they are creating an uncomfortable or painful situation.

To reach acceptance of who someone is, you will have to drop the fantasy of how you think things ought to be. Setting such high expectations of someone leads to feelings of disappointment, which the person most likely feels. Accept your family members where they are at in life.

Use Empathy to Diffuse Difficult Situations

Try to listen and understand where your relative is coming from instead of judging what they say or do. This is using empathy to make them feel more understood. Listening with empathy will help you to see their perspective, not the perspective you wish they would see. Studies have shown that when you engage someone with empathy, acknowledging their point of view without judging it, you make him or her feel more understood, resulting in them being less difficult or defensive.

Look at the difficult relative with kindness and compassion. Understand that they might be struggling with anxiety or fear and acknowledge it with your eyes. When he or she speaks, paraphrase back to the person the points you think they are making and acknowledge the emotions they seem to be expressing. Most family members are seeking love and approval. By giving it to them, you will deftly diffuse difficult encounters.

Finally, find reasons to be grateful for your family, even those members who tend to rub you the wrong way. We have written before in The Attitude of Gratitude that gratitude will increase your happiness and has the power to deepen your emotional connection with others. Be thankful that your family members are in your life and focus on the times that hold a special fondness in your past encounters.

Remember, you cannot change how your relatives behave. You can, however, change the way you behave towards your relatives. By changing yourself you change the dynamics of the relationship, hopefully for the better. Keeping it relative will keep you in a happier place.


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