How to Navigate Difficult Relationships With Your Family

adult daughter arguing with mother

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It's normal to experience an occasional misunderstanding, disagreement, or even selfishness among family members. In fact, challenges and difficulties are not that uncommon.

But, if you find that your relationships with family members—or even just one family member in particular—are especially difficult, you may want to take some time to examine that relationship more closely.

Begin by asking yourself if the relationship is unsafe or just a little awkward to manage. If your family relationship is abusive, you might want to consider limiting your interactions with this person. In fact, research shows that prolonged conflict with people as well as negative relationships can impact your health.

If, on the other hand, you're just dealing with negativity, obnoxious behavior, little annoyances, or overly dramatic family members, there are things you can do to make these interactions less stressful for you. Here are some tips on managing difficult relationships with family.

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How to Manage a Difficult Relationship

If you're struggling to navigate a difficult relationship with a family member, it can help to level the playing field and neutralize some of the difficulties. Begin by reminding yourself that you have no control over another person's actions, but you can change your reaction.

Take some time to think about what you appreciate about your family member, rather than focusing on the things that make them difficult to be around. When you're together, you will be less likely to zero in on their faults.

Here are some other tips for effectively managing a difficult relationship.

  • Suggest meeting someplace neutral. Choosing a location where you both feel at ease can help create a calmer atmosphere. Meeting in public often leads people to be on their best behavior as most don't like to attract attention or make a scene.
  • Prepare yourself mentally for your interactions. If you know you have a gathering coming up where you will be interacting with difficult family members, it can help to prepare yourself beforehand. For instance, if your aunt regularly criticizes your career choice or makes insensitive remarks about your lack of children, think about how you might respond if that happens. Being prepared ahead of time can help you navigate difficult conversations and interactions with less stress.
  • Be empathetic. Most difficult people aren't born that way. Instead, they became difficult based on their life experiences. For instance, if your family member has lived a particularly hard life, they may be struggling with bitterness, resentment, or anger over what life has dealt them. Instead of getting annoyed by their behavior, try to look at the situation empathetically. While this does not excuse their bad behavior, it certainly will help you keep things in perspective.

How to Interact With a Difficult Family Member

Depending on your family member's issues and hot buttons, communication may be challenging, especially if they are particularly difficult to get along with.

If they are prone to anger, manipulation, or bullying, you may want to consider whether or not interacting with this family member is in your best interest. Just because they are family does not mean you are required to be emotionally abused in some way.

However, if your family member is just difficult to be around or challenging to communicate with, these tips might help your interactions go a little more smoothly.

Avoid Hot Topics or Sensitive Subjects

If conversations about religion, politics, or money usually result in heated arguments, try your best to avoid the topic. If your family member insists on discussing issues that make you uncomfortable, consider just listening to what they have to say.

Sometimes people like to discuss volatile subjects because they enjoy the drama that surrounds them. If you're not arguing with them or trying to prove a point, they may tire of the discussion. Of course, if their comments become too much for you, there's nothing wrong with excusing yourself and stepping outside to clear your head.

Pay Attention to Your Emotions

If you're spending a lot of time with a difficult family member, make sure you're keeping tabs on your emotions. Pay attention to your stress level and know your own limitations. If you're feeling particularly upset or stressed out, try deep breathing or other relaxation techniques.

Also, look for ways that you can get a break from the stress like going to the restroom or taking the dog outside. If the entire situation gets to be too much, don't be afraid to cut the visit short.

Be Intentional

Although it can be very challenging not to react when a family says something outrageous or obnoxious, it's important that you pause before responding. You want to be sure that your response is calm and measured. Not only can this type of response prevent unnecessary arguments, it also keeps you from being pulled into the drama.

Avoid Trying to 'Fix' Things

If you are at a family function and an argument erupts or if one of your family members has a meltdown, don't rush in and try to fix the situation. Likewise, don't try to fix your difficult family member in some way. Unless they ask for advice, you need to refrain from giving it or pressuring them into doing something differently.

Refrain From People-Pleasing

When dealing with difficult family members, it's very tempting to engage in people-pleasing especially in order to keep the peace. Stay true to who you are no matter how difficult the situation is.

How to Deal With Toxic Family Dynamics

If your relationship with your family member is painful or abusive, you may want to consider whether or not you want to maintain contact with this person. Sometimes the healthiest thing to do is to put some distance between the two of you rather than trying to maintain an unhealthy relationship.

That said, there will be times when you have to interact with this family member, like at weddings or funerals. As a result, it can be helpful to be prepared. Here are some suggestions for navigating these situations.

  • Set boundaries. Decide ahead of time what things you won't tolerate and what you will do if your family member crosses that line. Of course, you don't have to share your boundaries with them unless you want to. Just make sure you honor them if your family member crosses a line.
  • Give yourself permission to leave. You should never force yourself to endure abuse for the sake of the family. If your family member verbally abuses you or bullies you in some way, give yourself permission to leave.
  • Be selective about what information you share. Unfortunately, toxic family members are usually not trustworthy. For this reason, be careful about what information you share. People who abuse others often use personal information to their advantage and may even break your confidence or use the information to manipulate you in some way.
  • Call 9-1-1 if you are in danger. If your interactions escalate to the point that you feel like you're in danger, don't hesitate to call 9-1-1 for assistance. Many people want to protect family members from being held accountable, but you can't put yourself at risk. So, if your family member hurts you or threatens to hurt you, make sure you contact the police.
  • Consider talking with a counselor. Dealing with a difficult family relationship can be extremely stressful and hard to handle emotionally. Make sure you are getting help from a mental health professional. They can help you determine the best way to navigate difficult family relationships while making sure you take care of your mental health.

A Word From Verywell

Although it might seem unfair that you are the one trying to find ways of navigating difficult family relationships, keep in mind that the only thing you can control in this situation is your own behavior.

Even though your family member may be really annoying or a challenge to be around, you cannot change them or their behavior. The only thing you can do is learn how to effectively navigate these situations.

On the plus side, learning how to cope with difficult family relationships or navigate challenging family dynamics can benefit you in the long run. Once you have some tools in your arsenal, the interactions you have with your difficult family member will be less taxing for you. You are likely to be able to use these tools with other difficult people. After all, difficult people are everywhere not just in your family.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Newsom JT, Mahan TL, Rook KS, Krause N. Stable negative social exchanges and healthHealth Psychology. 2008;27(1):78-86. doi:10.1037/0278-6133.27.1.78

  2. Thomas PA, Liu H, Umberson D. Family relationships and well-beingInnovation in Aging. 2017;1(3). doi:10.1093/geroni/igx025

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert. She's also the former editor of Columbus Parent and has countless years of experience writing and researching health and social issues.