Dysfunctional Family Members: How to Deal with Them As an Adult
What is family? What does it mean to you?
For some of you, it may be the bedrock of your identity, strength, and support. However, I can safely assume that, because you are reading this article, your relationship with your parents, siblings, and extended relatives is less than ideal right now.
Dealing with dysfunctional family members is an extremely dense topic.
I would be lying to you if I said that one article would provide you with all the context necessary to explain how to deal with difficult, obstinate, or insufferable family members. However, as a life coach for entrepreneurs, I want to support you and give you as much information as possible to help you navigate the most challenging family dynamics.
First, we need to examine your perspective. The reason why so many of us struggle with family members is that we may be thinking about them from an incorrect or distorted angle.
Healing your emotional pain requires revisiting your past
“If you knew the parent who abused me and caused me problems, you would understand why my life is so hard!”
I have said this refrain countless times.
I said it when I wanted to:
- Avoid stressful situations.
- Complain about the lack of career success.
- Prove that others had no right to question me or what I wanted to do.
But I also said it when I wanted to:
- Have sex with strangers in dangerous places.
- Call a friend every night to complain about my problems.
- To justify my crazy and chaotic relationships.
Have you ever really thought about the words that you say?
And speaking about my parents, I honestly don’t know my mother. I lived with her for 13 years. Those 13 years were long and pain-filled.
All I knew was that I lived with a dysfunctional family member who had little to no resistance to doing deplorable things. However, that is just part of the bigger picture.
Trauma and abuse have a way of distorting reality.
The devil incarnate
At the beginning of my recovery, I portrayed my mother as a monstrous villain who delighted in sexual molestation, attempted to starve my brother, wrote bad checks and was just a terrible human being.
I concluded that she was evil personified.
But did I ever thought beyond the words that I said? As, I write this article as a 41-year-old woman, I still don’t know her.
Clearly, she has mental issues, but what would cause a person to commit such terrible acts?
How could she call the cops on her own kids just because they wanted something to eat?
I need to know.
Why unresolved emotional pain distorts reality
I wrestled with these questions and decided to numb the pain by indulging in sex and alcohol for many years.
People with unresolved traumas and addictions avoid asking these questions because they are addicted to stress hormones.
My healing began when I stopped seeing myself as a victim and started to be more curious about me, others, and life from an objective perspective. My emotionally disabled mother and other family members were all victims.
Crime studies have shown that most perpetrators of crimes were once victims of similar crimes. For instance, during R. Kelly’s trial for multiple sex crimes, his legal team argued that he was a victim of sexual abuse as a child.
Does this excuse what my mother or any other abuser? NOOOOOO!
But if you want to get well, you have to look at things from a different angle.
In the following section, we will discuss how you can handle dysfunctional family members.
Before you deal with dysfunctional family members
Know your limits
While you may not have my background, you may have had one or more family members who made you feel sad, insignificant, unimportant or worthless. I won’t even try to justify their behavior then or now. However, I want to give you some tips for dealing with dysfunctional family members as an adult.
Before I share these tips, I have an important idea to convey:
It is completely up to you to decide the level of interaction you want to have with any dysfunctional family member.
For example, for safety reasons, I cannot allow my son to interact with my mother. That is a choice I made along with my husband.
Furthermore, you may not be in a spiritual or mental space to interact with certain family members. You may need several months or even years to heal from your past emotional pain. My advice depends entirely on your level of comfort, safety, and maturity.
Tips with dealing with dysfunctional family members
The first step is to set limits. Set limits on how often you will hear from or speak to them. The next step is setting limits on what you will speak about. Finally, learn how to be communicate with others in a loving and constructive way.
First, we will discuss limits on frequency of calls and visits.
How to set limits on calls and visits
Setting limits means knowing the amount of time that works well for your mental health and priorities.
This isn’t coming from a place where you try to avoid and evade your feelings. Famed Swiss psychologist Carl Jung once said, “what you resist, not only persists, but will also grow in size.”
Setting time limits is about knowing what is needed and necessary to help you mature emotionally, while not pushing your boundaries.
Make it clear to yourself how often you will meet, then let your family member know of your plans. Inform them of your limits and let them decide whether to accept or reject your plan.
That means you don’t have to visit your dysfunctional family member(s) daily, and it doesn’t matter if they beg, scream, or yell at you for your decision. It also doesn’t matter if they call your relatives and use them to manipulate you into seeing them.
You are an adult, and adults are judicious with how they use their time.
Limits on talking points.
Love – don’t try to own someone’s pain or misery.
When you grew up, you may have grown accustomed to listening to tales of woe from your family members. You may know all about their financial and health problems, or even their sex life. As a child, if you were told things that belonged in a conversation with another adult, it’s called emotional incest.
I’m sorry your emotionally disabled parent or parent figure loaded your innocence mind with inappropriate facts as a child.
Now is a new day. And as an adult, you have a choice.
You can listen to someone without trying to take on their misery, or even better, you can tell them that you’re not available for certain types of conversation that you cannot and will not resolve.
Your family isn’t out to “get you.”
See your family as disabled people, not criminal masterminds.
Unless your parents were involved in human or drug trafficking or some type of RICO-like crime, your parents or other dysfunctional family members are just wounded, broken people with poor to nonexistent communication skills.
Dysfunctional behaviour, while maladaptive, is functional within the family unit to cope with emotional and physical pain. When you grow up and see others behave differently, it can make you question how “normal” your family was.
Compassion for yourself requires compassion for others
My recovery and wellness began when I stopped viewing my family members as evil and horrible people.
When we are feeling sad and upset, we are not exactly seen as safe. We may have yelled, cursed, said impolite things, and done terrible or jerky things. Would we want to be thrown in jail, never to be seen again?
Unless you have terribly low self-worth and borderline suicidal, I think you would answer in the negative.
When you’re not thinking of your family members as demons, they will pick up on that energy. This may not mean they will act less irrational or belligerent, but at least you won’t be adding fuel to the emotional fire.
If you’re thinking of your family members as demons, they’ll pick up on that energy. And I doubt they’ll act less irrational and belligerent if they are viewed as an obstacle or inconvenience.
People judge others based on their behavior, while we judge ourselves based on our intent. Take a moment and think before concluding certain family members are just on a mission to make you feel miserable.
If you want to improve your interactions with family members, it requires some action from you. I recommend that you:
1. Have a positive intent. Nobody wants to talk with someone who has underlying malice or ill-will.
2. Maintain a positive attitude. Even if you mean well, you want to reflect that in your words. Stay focused on the benefits that come from the conversation and how it will help you grow.
3. Set limits. Remember your boundaries regarding how long and what you will talk about. Conversations can easily go off track when one person introduces inappropriate or unwanted issues.
4. Inner integrity is necessary. People crave honesty in this day and age. Even if it’s scary, being clear about who you are, your values, and why they matter adds depth and quality to conversations that would otherwise be lacking.
The image below summarizes these tips.
While you cannot control the behavior of your parents or relatives, you have full control over yourself. Part of your ability to heal requires examining how your thoughts may contribute to your current pain and confusion.
Once you are ready to be honest about your feelings, then and only then can you relate in a healthy and constructive way with others, if you choose to.
If you need help understanding how your family dynamics are linked to your current behavior, then don’t hesitate to contact me.
DISCLAIMER: THIS ARTICLE DOES NOT PROVIDE MENTAL HEALTH ADVICE
The information in this article is for informational purposes only. No material in this article or website is to be a substitute for professional medical and/or mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you read from me or anyone else online.
Also, this article is not designed to diagnose or treat you or anyone with a suspected mental health illness. Please, if you need help, seek appropriate help from a lawyer, health care provider or law enforcement officer.