You love your family members, but sometimes they’re frustrating and aggravating! These six tips on how to deal with troubling family problems will help you get along with your siblings, parents, or other relatives.
Learning how to handle toxic family problems is complicated because of the strong emotions we feel towards our relatives. “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.”
Your family will always be part of who you are, even if you think that this time you – or they – have gone too far. If possible – as far as it depends on you – live in peace with your relatives. Don’t burn bridges or ruin your relationship with your family. Sometimes we think the best way to deal with family problems is by walking away forever…but we know deep down that it’s better to work through our issues, even with toxic relatives.
Your family is important, meaningful and special to you – no matter how troublesome and toxic they are. You don’t want to reject or banish them from your life, but you do need to protect your emotional, spiritual, and physical health.
Before you read my tips on how to deal with family problems and toxic relatives, think for a minute about the difference between a family fight and a toxic relative. This is important because it changes how you respond to your family members and their issues.
Toxic family members are emotionally unhealthy and destructive. They are harmful to themselves and you, and will destroy relationships, activities, and family events. Toxic family members are unhappy and unhealthy; their negative energy and perspective spreads to everyone around them. A family fight or feud, on the other hand, is a conflict between relatives that involves hurt feelings, misunderstanding, and miscommunication – but it can be resolved. Fights and arguments can be healed because the family members aren’t necessarily toxic. They’re simply human.
Learning how to handle family problems involves recognizing when a relative is emotionally or spiritually toxic, versus when he or she is simply a “normal kind of crazy” family member who is just human. Even the best of us humans are weak, foolish, inept, and selfish. That’s why we need to accept and rely on the love of Jesus! We can’t save ourselves – or our families – but we can accept His love and forgiveness.
6 Tips for Dealing With Troubling Family Problems
There are no easy solutions, no quick tips for dealing with family problems. The best way to cope is to get as spiritually and emotionally healthy as you can, because your grounding will help you cope with family drama.
Connecting with God is the only way to be truly spiritually and emotionally healthy. He created you, He loves you deeply, and He put you in this family for a reason! You are woven into God’s great plan. You may never learn why your family members are part of your life, or even how to deal with the most toxic relatives. But if you accept the love of Jesus, you can experience the joy, peace, love, freedom, and forgiveness that He offers.
It’s also important to learn how to take care of yourself in practical ways – and recognize when and how you’re contributing to your family’s problems. This isn’t about blaming yourself or them; it’s about knowing where your responsibility begins and ends. And accepting your own role in your family problems.
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1. Know when to draw the line with toxic family members
On my article about dealing 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?”
The quick answer is that you often can’t stop your family members from causing problems or repeatedly hurting you or others. If they are physically violent, you have to call the police or 911. Protect yourself and others, even if you’re worried about how your family will react. Let toxic or abusive family members face the consequences of their actions. If you keep protecting them from natural consequences, they’ll keep acting the same way.
It’s crucial to remember that you can’t deal with family problems by trying to change your relatives. You can’t even change yourself without hard work and self-discipline (or the powerful sweep of the Holy Spirit!). You can forgive your relatives for hurting you or breaking your heart, but you can’t change their behavior or choices. Forgiveness and love means looking forward, not backwards.
2. Learn the “natural consequences” of poor choices
If your family member causes physical harm – abuses – another person or family member, then a natural consequence is facing the police or judicial system. If your relative always borrows money for destructive activities and never pays it back, then a natural consequence could be suing for repayment (easier if you and your family member signed a promissory note or loan agreement. Read 6 Things to Consider Before Lending Money to Your Adult Child for tips on how to deal with family problems that involve financial loans).
Another natural consequence is simply not being invited to family dinners or celebrations (if the toxic relative always ruins gatherings). Many families try – out of love – to protect their relatives from the results of their actions. This may appear to be a kind and compassionate thing to do, but it’s “enabling.” It perpetuates the behavior and makes things worse for the whole family in the long run.
3. Keep practicing different ways to deal with toxic family problems
There is no one right way to cope with problems in your family because there is no one type of trouble! You may need to experiment with different tools and strategies until you find what works for you and your family problems. The best tip for dealing with families is to read books and get 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.
Sometimes the best way to handle toxic family members is to simply stay away. This is a boundary that could be healthy if the conflict can’t be resolved or the problems never go away. Learning how to manage boundaries with difficult relatives and toxic situations is one of the best places to start.
In Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life, Drs Henry Cloud and John Townsend describe how to set clear boundaries when you’re learning how to deal with toxic family problems.
A boundary is a personal property line that marks those things for which we are responsible. Boundaries in family and other relationships define who we are and who we are not. They impact all areas of our lives: Physical boundaries help us determine who may touch us and under what circumstances. Mental boundaries give us the freedom to have our own thoughts and opinions. Emotional boundaries help us to deal with our own emotions and disengage from the harmful, manipulative emotions of others. Every type of boundary is important in all relationships – even with the closest family members.
4. Distance yourself from difficult or abusive relatives
Sometimes the best way to handle family problems is to separate yourself physically and emotionally. Accept that your family problems will not change – and neither will your relatives. Distance may be physical, such as moving to a different house, state, or country. Or, distance may be emotional, such as not answering the phone or text messages 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 card or email message instead of calling.
How you decide to deal with family problems depends on your personality, lifestyle, and physical and emotional health.
I call my mom every week, even though I find it difficult to talk to her. She’s not toxic; she suffers from a serious mental illness called schizophrenia. We can still have phone conversations, but they aren’t exactly life-giving or deep! And yet, I’m glad I call her every week. She tells me she loves me, and she’s sorry that she’s mentally ill. I accept her, and surrender to my life the way it is.
Remember that learning how to deal with family problems is not the same as surviving abusive parents when you can’t leave home. If you’re dealing with abuse, you need to reach out for support and guidance from professional counselors or organizations.
5. Learn how to protect yourself from unfair or hurtful criticism
Dealing with family problems requires setting healthy boundaries. It’s easier to set boundaries than to actually stick to them! That’s why Dr Cloud and Townsend’s Boundaries books are awesome.
Learning how to protect your boundaries despite criticism and negative feedback from toxic relatives is crucial. Remember that your family members 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.
Read Leaving Home: The Art of Separating From Your Difficult Family – especially if you have a feeling that learning how to deal with your family problems or toxic relatives is too difficult on your own. Many adults re-create the most painful aspects of their early relationships with their parents in new relationships with peers and romantic partners, frustrating themselves and discouraging them from leaving their family of origin.
Leaving Home emphasizes the life-saving benefits of separating from destructive parents and offers effective tips on how to deal with family problems by putting distance between yourself and toxic relatives.
6. Don’t expect your family member to change
This is the most important tip on how to deal with family problems: you can’t change your relatives. You can change the things you have control over, such as how often you visit family, where you see them, the length of the visits, etc. But you’ll never change your family member’s personality, lifestyle, habits, or decisions.
Your 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. Part of monitoring your attitudes and responses is noticing when you’re creating more problems and when you’re calming the situation. Be honest with yourself. Learn how you can handle toxic family members better. Grow. Reach upwards for strength, inwards for insight and self-awareness.
If you struggle to communicate with your relatives and loved ones, read How to Ask for What You Need in Your Relationships.
How are you dealing with toxic relatives who cause family problems? I welcome your comments below! I can’t offer advice or counseling, but it might help you to share your story.
Often, just expressing your emotions and experiences can bring insight and healing. And it shows others they’re not alone. Read through the readers’ comments below; you’ll see that you’re in good company.
Laurie's "She Blossoms" Books
Growing Forward When You Can't Go Back offers hope, encouragement, and strength for women walking through loss. My Blossom Tips are fresh and practical - they stem from my own experiences with a schizophrenic mother, foster homes, a devastating family estrangement, and infertility.
How to Let Go of Someone You Love: Powerful Secrets (and Practical Tips!) for Healing Your Heart is filled with comforting and healthy breakup advice. The Blossom Tips will help you loosen unhealthy attachments to the past, seal your heart with peace, and move forward with joy.
When You Miss Him Like Crazy: 25 Lessons to Move You From Broken to Blossoming After a Breakup will help you refocus your life, re-create yourself, and start living fully again! Your spirit will rise and you'll blossom into who you were created to be.
May you find healing, hope, forgiveness, and peace in your family. Even more importantly, may you accept the deep love of Jesus and strong power of God! You – and your family members – were created for a purpose. You were created to love and know God. Jesus is the solution to your problems, the answer to your questions, and the only way to fill the emptiness and ache in your heart, soul, and spirit. He is the only source of joy, peace, and love!