“HELP ME… I’m feeling!” — How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Here we are again, the time of year that we are all reminded of family. For some of us, the concept of family can feel warm and inviting, while others’ concept can elicit fear and a readiness to take cover. Regardless of how the idea of time with family might feel for you, we will all at some point have to deal with family conflict. And like the Grinch put so accurately, sometimes we need help to know what to do with our feelings!
Dealing with difficult family members during the holidays is not as much of an “if” as a “when.” Whether we know it or not, being a part of a family means that we are a part of a ‘family system.’ A family system is like an emotional organization where each family member holds a specific role in the organization. Therefore, a family operates like a subculture where there are (often unspoken) rules, roles, behaviors, and beliefs that govern how family members interact with one another. The good news is that each person’s family system is most recognizable when their family comes together for the holidays or other events. The bad news (and perhaps too obvious) is that these events can also create the greatest opportunity for conflict within families. However, have no fear!
Here are 3 tips for dealing with difficult family members within your family system:
1. Start with an understanding that you cannot change other people.
You cannot control others, BUT you can control how you respond to others and where you choose to create boundaries. By reserving energy that we might otherwise use to change others, we can instead put our efforts towards responding more positively to difficult family members. To do this, we have to:
- Begin by focusing on what you DO love about the difficult family member. Even being able to name one thing you appreciate about the family member can help you remember that they are more than just the parts that frustrate you.
- Set boundaries with yourself to not get tangled in the belief that we have to agree with family members just because we are in the same family.
- Choose to become aware that the difficulty that the family member brings to the family can somehow help you understand their role (as well as our own) within the family system.
Our purpose in dealing with difficult family members can be to learn how to honor each of our roles as just that… roles that have created beliefs and ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. We can live peacefully in disagreement when we stop trying to change others and manage our own boundaries by reminding ourselves that we have the choice to participate in the role or not. Remembering your own volition within the family system can help you build healthier relationship patterns and interactions with your family.
2. Practice communicating from a position of “I” and clarify.
If you are anything like me, we can get very focused on pointing out all the ways “you” have it wrong when conversing with difficult family members. And the moment we step into a conversation pointing out how the “you” has made mistakes, we have thrown down the green flag to start a debate. For example, how do you think Alice might respond to the following:
“Alice, you really let me down by not telling me how much time has gone by.”
“You” statements like the one above often has the effect of assigning blame to an individual. Naturally, no one likes feeling blamed, and it would be easy to imagine Alice responding, saying, “well, you didn’t ask what time it was!” Instead of using “you” statements, try to think about how a difficult family member is making you feel. When we start with “I feel” and then “describe the feeling” and then define “what we need,” we are managing our boundaries. An “I statement” might look like the following:
“Alice, I feel like I had different expectations for the afternoon. I feel sad that we went hiking for so long and didn’t get time with the rest of the family. I enjoyed time together, and next time can we talk about how we can balance time with the rest of the family?“
It can be so helpful to take the time to pause and think about your reactions to your difficult family members when communicating with them. Sometimes taking a moment to clarify, “what I heard you say was,” and then repeat what you heard can act as a white flag moment to help you navigate a difficult conversation with family members.
3. Rely on your empathy and ability to self-soothe.
Remind yourself that very few people are immune to feeling overwhelmed, tense, or anxious when dealing with difficult family members. If this experience is the same for many, could it be possible that your difficult family member may also be feeling similarly? Even if they appear challenging, they may also be feeling tense, anxious, or overwhelmed too! Trying to understand our emotions and others’ emotions before stepping into a conversation or debate gives us a winning chance to interrupt old habits of ineffective communication. Thinking about how your family member feels does not mean that you have to get rid of how you feel. Instead, it helps you better understand the emotional landscape and how to interact so that the interaction can lead to connection.
Additionally, taking small breaks to decompress and make peace with your frustrations can provide little moments of relief. Taking moments to ground oneself and remain mindful in the moment can help you to manage your emotions and navigate difficult conversations with family members. Consider how you can create the space to do a mind and body check, to ground ourselves in the moment and not in our thoughts. Each of these is ways to prevent arguments and make interactions with difficult family members go more smoothly.
Working with a trained, licensed professional counselor in advance of events with difficult family members can also be helpful. Even when the holidays with family may have to be celebrated via Zoom, knowing how to understand your emotions, communicate how you feel, and learning how to ground yourself are strategies to use when dealing with difficult family members. A counselor can team up with you to build these resources and improve engagement within your family system. To schedule a free 15-minute consultation with me, click here to schedule an appointment.