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13 Ways to Deal With a Difficult Family Member

Figuring out how to deal with a difficult family member often means taking the high road, even when you want to scream.

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Everybody needs to know how to deal with a difficult family member. Maybe it's your dad. Perhaps it's your husband's sister. It could be your grandmother, your cousin, or a friend of the family who acts like an honorary relative. Whatever the case, you can't avoid family functions forever. However, it doesn't have to turn into a battle royale every time you meet up, either.

What's the worst that could happen?

By this point, you probably know what to expect with your problematic relative or in-law. One way to deal with a difficult family member is to use that to your advantage. Without manifesting any negative energy, try to prepare for the worst. Consider the most horrible thing the other person could say or do. Think up battle strategies ahead of time. Perhaps that involves killing your relative with kindness or limiting interactions with your unpleasant family member.

Accentuate the positive.

No one is bad to the bone. You might have to do some serious searching to find anything positive about your hard-to-love mother-in-law or sibling, but it's there. Focus on that rather than the negative traits. It's hard, and it can only take you so far, but it's a start. At the very least, it may be enough to get you through a graduation party or a holiday dinner.

Try a little empathy to deal with a difficult family member.

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Miserable people bring misery to everyone else. Hurt people hurt people. Those are clichés, but that's why they're right. There's a reason your cousin makes snide remarks about your kids. Not for nothing is your father-in-law a little cold toward you. Just remember that wanting to deal with a difficult family member kindly and thoughtfully doesn't mean that your family member will cooperate. You may never know the reasons behind a relative's bad behavior, but you can at least understand that those reasons exist.

Speak up about your boundaries.

Blood isn't always thicker than water. Even at family gatherings, you aren't obligated to deal with a difficult family member who causes discomfort or hurts your feelings. Always speaking calmly, gently, and respectfully sets up guilt-free boundaries with families and family members that may be necessary for your peace of mind. Dealing with difficult people doesn't mean allowing anyone to walk all over you.

Excuse yourself.

Another technique that you can use to deal with a difficult family member is to excuse yourself as soon as the interaction gets too intense. Fake a phone call, go to the powder room, or step outside. Take a few moments to breathe and center yourself. However, don't do this more than two or three times. Once it reaches that stage, it's better just to leave or to stay away from that relative for the rest of the event.

Turn it around.

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Dealing with difficult family members sometimes requires a bit of psychology. Don't walk into any interaction expecting it to be a fight, but try to prepare all the same. Being proactive can save you from a tense, uncomfortable occasion. Anytime your relative says or does something inappropriate, ask, “Are you all right?” That puts both the onus and the pressure on the other person to explain away a display of bad behavior.

Avoid provocative subjects.

You know the inflammatory topics that set off your problematic people. To deal with a difficult family member for the evening, avoid those subjects entirely. Vaccinations, politics, your decision to move to another state or go back to school—they're all verboten. Feel free to say that you don't want to discuss it to any relative who insists on pushing your buttons. You're allowed to have boundaries. Just agree to disagree, showing that you respect the person, if not the opinion.

Stay away from the guilt trap.

Family comes with guilt. Someone will try to make you feel guilty for avoiding or setting boundaries with your relative. Learning how to deal with a difficult family member involves understanding that you can only control your own actions and feelings. No one can inspire guilt if you don't let it happen, so what exactly are you guilty of? Anyone who expects you to remain silent in the face of bullying behavior doesn't have your best interests at heart.

Don't fight to be right.

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Choose your battles. Agree to disagree. That advice is never more helpful than when you have to deal with a difficult family member during an obligatory event. For the sake of your mental health, don't worry about being right—nope, not even when you know that you are. Is it worth the fallout? The answer is almost always “no.”

Take care of yourself.

Whether it's your mother or your mother-in-law, no one has the right to wear down your self-esteem or mental health. Do what's necessary for your self-care. That might mean that you miss a few events or that you decide to stop inviting a difficult person to parties and gatherings that you host. It is absolutely crucial that you take care of yourself when dealing with difficult people.

Accept the difficulty.

Don't try to change a difficult person. It's an exercise in futility. You can't change someone else. That's not under your control. Accept that your difficult relative is a PITA. Those are the facts. Once you give up control like that, you can almost view your family member from a different perspective. Turn her or him into a caricature in your mind. Interactions become much more entertaining.

Never rise to the bait.

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A difficult family member wants a reaction. She or he will absolutely attempt to bait you into having an argument or lashing out. Many problematic relatives will then frame themselves as the victim, leading to a toxic, vicious cycle. Close your eyes, take a breath, and bite your tongue instead of chomping on the bait. Often, the most successful method you can employ to deal with a difficult family member is to ignore the person.

Limit your interactions.

If all else fails, then the most foolproof way to deal with a difficult family member is to limit your interactions. Keep your relative at a distance. You might have to indulge in the occasional obligation, but beyond that, don't let that person take up space in your life, let alone your mind.

What are some of the techniques you use to deal with a difficult family member? What works and what causes more significant issues?

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