You love your family, but the problems seem endless. Use these tips to cope with family problems caused by siblings, parents, or other relatives.
Before the tips, a quip:
“Family quarrels have a total bitterness unmatched by others,” wrote Mignon McLaughlin. “Yet it sometimes happens that they also have a kind of tang, a pleasantness beneath the unpleasantness, based on the tacit understanding that this is not for keeps; that any limb you climb out on will still be there later for you to climb back.”
There’s a difference between a family quarrel and a toxic relative, though. A toxic relative may keep you out on that limb, unwilling to return – and maybe that’s the best thing for you!
If you can’t untangle yourself from your family problems or toxic relatives, read Leaving Home: The Art of Separating From Your Difficult Family.
And, here are five tips for toxic relatives…
6 Ways to Handle Family Problems
1. Know when to draw the line. On my article about coping with difficult parents, many readers describe toxic relatives who cause a lot of harm to themselves and their family members. My readers ask the same question over and over: “How can I stop my brother/parent/uncle/family member from doing it again?” It depends on the situation, of course, but many times the answer is found in letting your relatives face the consequences. If you keep protecting them from natural consequences, they’ll keep acting the same way.
2. Figure out what the “natural consequences” are. If your relative causes physical harm to another person or family member, then a natural consequence is legal action. If your relative always borrows money and never pays it back, then a natural consequence could be filing suit for repayment (provided you and your relative signed a loan agreement). Another natural consequence is not being invited to family dinners or celebrations (if the toxic relative always ruins the get-togethers). Many families try – out of love – to protect their relatives from the results of their actions. This may appear to be a loving thing to do, but it’s “enabling.” It perpetuates the behavior.
I list a few natural consequences in How to Handle Relatives Who Get Drunk at Family Gatherings.
3. Learn how to deal with difficult people. Dealing with toxic people can be challenging, but there are many books and resources on how to deflect conflicts and situations. Read about boundaries, take workshops or classes about setting healthy boundaries with difficult people, and consider talking to a family counselor about the best way to handle family problems.
4. Distance yourself from toxic relatives. Sometimes the best way to handle family problems is to separate yourself physically and emotionally. This may mean moving to a different house, state, or country. Or, it may mean not answering the phone until you’re mentally and emotionally ready to talk. You don’t necessarily need to cut toxic relatives out of your life; rather, you can give them a quick call every 2-3 months — or you can send a note instead of calling.
5. Don’t expect your family member to change. Change the things you have control over, such as how often you visit. Even knowing you have control over the littlest things can make a difference! Your toxic relative may never change, but you can empower yourself in different ways. For instance, if you have an alcoholic sibling, you can join an Al-Anon support group. Toxic relatives are stressful – there’s no doubt about it – but you can reduce the stress by checking your own attitude and response to them.
6. Expect criticism. Handling problems with family requires setting healthy boundaries. It’s easier to set boundaries than to actually stick to them! Learn how to protect your boundaries despite criticism from other people. And remember that your toxic relatives may not think they’re doing anything wrong, and may not see the negative effect they have on you or others. They may think everyone should live and act the way they do. That’s their right, and it’s your right to live the way you see fit.
For more tips, read How to Handle Parents Who Interfere in Your Relationship.
How do you handle toxic relatives who cause family problems?
I'm glad you're here! My name is Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen; my husband Bruce and I live in Vancouver, BC with our critters. We can't have kids, and are learning to accept whatever life brings - both good and bad. I have an MSW (Master of Social Work) from UBC, and degrees in Education and Psychology. I hope you say hello below - I can't give relationship advice, but writing can bring you clarity and insight.