How to Handle Dysfunctional Family Members

Dysfunctional family members are hard to predict and harder to handle.

A reader recently commented on my article, How to Get Along with Family When You Don’t Fit In, with the question: “But what if the family consists of alcoholics, constant fighting and crisis?” Getting along with family members under those conditions is near impossible as the family dynamic is set around dysfunction. When people are incoherent, belligerent, sarcastic, belittling, or prone to drama they don’t want peaceful relations, so there’s no point in trying. If they weren’t family, would you spend time with them? Most likely not, but because they are there is a bond that pulls you toward them.

I wish I had an ideal solution for handling dysfunctional family members – such as an incantation you could silently whisper that would render them speechless, wake them up, soften their heart and touch their soul so deep they’d experience instant transformation. What I do have are four suggestions for how to protect yourself so you don’t get drawn down into the muck and misery with them.

1. Set healthy boundaries. Are there certain times of the year or specific events where the family dysfunction is worse? Make other plans for those times so you don’t feel obliged to attend family gatherings. If there are some family members you enjoy spending time with, arrange this on your own terms. Perhaps individual visits with no alcohol and an agreement to focus on the positive when you’re together will help. Explore a variety of ways to create healthy boundaries with family.

2. Let go of guilt and obligation. Dysfunctional family members don’t usually understand why a saner member of the family doesn’t want to get together. If you feel any sense of guilt or obligation they will sense this and use it to cajole, manipulate or guilt you into visiting or attending family gatherings. If you feel clear and strong within yourself that it is not healthy for you to attend, and that other family members will be fine without you, it will be easier to say no without needing to explain. This strength will emanate from you and prevent others from poking and prying.

3. Remain neutral and amused. For times when you do attend family events, rise above the fray by staying neutral and amused. Don’t let dysfunctional family members trigger you or hook you into reactivity. Stay centered within your own bubble of calm and lightness as a way to protect yourself from the onslaught of family abuse.

4. Touch into compassion. If you are judgmental or disapproving towards your family, this will dampen your mood and make you vulnerable to attack. Instead, have compassion for others. Know that they weren’t born like this, but somewhere along the way their wounds became so difficult to handle they resorted to dysfunctional coping mechanisms. Look past behaviors to see the spiritual being within who longs to be seen. And for a spiritual perspective, read the article, The Soul Purpose for Dysfunctional Families.

I hope the above suggestions help you to bring more peace and calm into your family relations.

Do you have any questions or further suggestions for how to handle dysfunctional family members? Please share below.

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Dear Readers,

I am not able to be on the computer much these days due to my current activities, so I won't be able to respond to comments very often.

I encourage you though, to use the comment section as a place to share your experience, read about others' and to respond to and support each other with your situations.

Take care,

Gini

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6 Responses to How to Handle Dysfunctional Family Members

  1. Susanne says:

    You have beautiful and spiritual advice to give all of us trying to make the best of our difficult family situations. You also seem to have a Buddhist view, whether you are aware of it or not, and I commend you for your holistic perspective.

    Thank you for giving such loving, thoughtful, and helpful advice!

    You nurture the soul!

  2. Gini Grey says:

    Hello Susanne,

    Thank you for your kind words and insights. And yes, I see the Buddhist perspective in my articles now that you mention it. While I don’t consider myself a practicing Buddhist, I do meditate regularly and I appreciate much of the Buddhist philosophy and how it fits with other spiritual truths.

    Take care,

    Gini

  3. Linda says:

    Thank you so much for your wonderful advice in dealing with
    those close people in our lives. We all have some or all of these situations. You give great coping strategies, even if we
    have heard and read these before, it is good to be reminded
    again and again as we try to get out of old patterns. Your site is like going to an old friend and getting good advice.
    Thankyou!!
    Linda

  4. Gini Grey says:

    Thanks for your feedback, Linda. I love that idea that my site is like “going to an old friend and getting good advice.” And it’s so true that we need to be reminded of these strategies. Every time I write an article, I’m re-reminding myself of what I need to know.

    Take care,

    Gini

  5. kazy says:

    I love your Buddha type outlook. However, what I don’t see here which is a concern of mine, is how to handle an abusive family member who is highly dysfunctional, should be medicated or under therapy but has no health insurance, that everyone walks around on egg shells for fear of another frothing at the mouth meltdown. She treats those closest to her like doormats or punching bags and writes highly negative energy emails that are hard to respond to. What to do?

  6. Gini Grey says:

    Hello Kazy,

    That is a tricky one – dealing with an abusive family member who is mentally ill. You mentioned she doesn’t have health insurance, so if she did, would she be willing to get help? I ask this because if she is aware of her mental illness, then perhaps setting clear boundaries might be helpful. Walking away from her with a statement such as “I care about you, but your illness has taken over and I feel abused so I’m leaving now.” If she doesn’t want to get help, then all you can do is set boundaries which may mean having no contact with her.

    For example, you could communicate clearly how you are affected by her negative emails and let her know if she continues, you will block her email address (put it on auto delete) and the same with phone calls, and not attend family gatherings if she is there. I know this is harsh, but what else can you do to protect yourself? If she had a drug or alcohol problem, it might be easier to set these type of boundaries, but an illness is an illness and there needs to be compassion combined with boundaries.

    My other suggestion is to ask yourself on a heart and soul level if there is a reason she is in your life and you are triggered by her. Could she be here to teach you something? I had a family member who was not highly abusive, but was critical, judgmental and very controlling so I decided not to have contact with her for several years (which meant opting out of family gatherings and just connecting one on one with family). Eventually though I realizes I couldn’t avoid her forever and she kept coming up in my consciousness. What I realized was that behind her behavior I did have a great love for her in my heart (for no plausable reason) and that she was here to teach me how to own my power while keeping my heart open at the same time. Now I can handle talking to her and she is much different with me.

    Imagine having so much compassion, love, neutrality (and a good dose of amusement thrown in) that you didn’t take her actions personally, didn’t feel abused because you knew it wasn’t her, but her illness speaking (so could easily walk away without feeling attacked), and were able to feel love towards her no matter what. Would this make a difference in being around her?

    It’s a tricky one, I wish you all the best with it,

    Gini

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