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Christian Living

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Family Matters 04/26/16

Seven Ways to Deal with Difficult Family Members

Sibling conflict

Julie isn't talking to her brother. She is mad at him for disagreeing with a decision she made.

When her brother, John, tries to talk about the decision, Julie explodes, cries, and tells him he never supports her.

The drama is intense and John feels Julie is impossible. He labels her a difficult family member and wants help knowing how to handle his dramatic sister.

People like Julie are difficult for a number of reasons. They react in extreme ways and have trouble regulating their emotions. They don't tolerate distress well and see things in black and white terms. Their intensity is exhausting.

So, what's the best way to react to someone like Julie?

Consider these seven tips on how to deal with a difficult family member from my book, We Need to Talk:

  1. Stay calm and do not match their intensity. If you start to escalate with a person like this, it won't go well. Staying calm is key to diffusing a high-intensity person. You may say, "Hey, we BOTH need to calm down right now. Let's take a break and come back to this issue later."
  2. Choose your battles. With a difficult person, conflict can come out of nowhere. It's as if they are looking for a fight or disagreement. So, if the issue isn't that important or you are not up for the fight, drop the issue. Don't respond to insults or attempts to engage you in something that is not worth the effort. Carefully choose the issues you want to confront.
  3. Manage your own thoughts and feelings. Even if the other person is out of control, concentrate on how you respond. Distract your thoughts by counting to five in Spanish—a behavior that will disengage the feeling part of your brain and reengage the thinking part. This helps you calm down. Then, take a deep breath and tell yourself to focus on your response.
  4. Set boundaries. If the person is escalating or personally demeaning to you, stop the conversation and say, "I am not comfortable with things that are being said. We need to stop for now." Stick to your guns!
  5. Stay focused on the issue. The person may try to emotionally upset you, but stick to the issue at hand. Think like a detective—only the facts. Stay away from emotional talk and bring the conversation back to a behavior or change that is needed.
  6. Pray for wisdom. With a difficult person, you don't want to keep responding the same way that gets poor results. So look at your part of interaction and think about how you can respond differently. But remember that even though you change your response, the other person likes the familiarity of the old way to fight or bring up conflict. So, they may try to get you to change back to the old pattern. Stay firm in your resolve.
  7. Be patient. Change is slow with difficult people as they will keep testing you to go back to old patterns of relating that are not healthy—yelling, calling names, accusing, etc. So, concentrate on the way you respond and keep practicing that behavior until you see a change.
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