How to Cope with a Dysfunctional Family

Coping with a dysfunctional family is never easy. Your emotional and physical energy can be depleted by family dysfunction. Family gatherings can be difficult, and resolving conflicts can feel impossible. To cope, learn to set boundaries and avoid topics that cause conflict. Limit contact with troublesome family members and learn to prioritise yourself. Remember that your emotional needs and well-being are important. When dealing with a dysfunctional family, be aware of and assert your own rights.

Part 1

Dealing with Family Events

1. Keep your expectations in check. Families that are dysfunctional may be resistant to change. When entering a family situation, try to keep your expectations in check. You may be less frustrated by disagreement if you accept that some conflict and difficulty are unavoidable.

Know who your most difficult relatives are. Spend as little time as possible with these people. Keep your distance from your mother, for example, if she is prone to causing drama.

Expect nothing drastic to happen. It is difficult to break free from a dysfunctional cycle. If it occurs, it will take time. Enter the event with the understanding that it will most likely be difficult. At the same time, keep an open mind to the possibility that everything will be fine. Don’t foreshadow events by deciding they’ll be bad. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

2. Bring someone with you to family gatherings. Having a buffer can help you deal with stress. Ask a friend or romantic partner to accompany you to family functions to provide emotional support.

In the presence of an outsider, your family may behave better. Do you have anyone you could invite? Perhaps a friend of yours has no plans for Christmas. Check to see if they want to join your family’s celebrations.

However, give your buffer plenty of time. Let them know that your family can be challenging at times.

3. Consume alcohol in moderation. Alcohol has a tendency to amplify emotions. If your family is naturally difficult, drinking too much alcohol may lead to an increase in conflict.

Your family may contain problem drinkers. If this is the case, contact family members and request an alcohol-free get-together.

Instead of alcohol, try to provide other beverages such as sparkling cider.

Some family members may be unwilling to attend a non-alcoholic event. These people are unlikely to show up or will leave early. Limiting alcohol consumption can be an excellent way to keep the more difficult family members at bay.

4. Keep the conversation from devolving into a fight. If your family fights, you can take the initiative to limit the amount of time you spend arguing. It’s aggravating when it’s your responsibility to ensure everyone gets along, but it’s sometimes unavoidable. Listen in on various conversations and try to change the subject when necessary.

You’re probably aware of the topics that cause conflict in your family. For example, perhaps your Uncle John is chronically unemployed as a result of his drinking. When the subject is brought up, he becomes extremely sensitive.

Act quickly when you hear the problem topic coming up. For example, suppose your father says something like, “Have you applied for any jobs recently, John? It’s been how long? 6 months?”

Jump in right away and steer the conversation away from danger. You could try a game, such as 20 questions, or simply change the subject. As an example, “Actually, Dad, Sarah just applied for a job at a bookstore. She’s very enthusiastic about it.”

It can be useful to come prepared with a list of “safe” topics that you believe everyone will enjoy. Make a note of these in your phone in case you panic and forget.

5. Have a plan of escape. It’s okay to walk away from a situation at times. Know an excuse you can use to avoid an interaction if someone becomes hostile or difficult.

For a moment, consider different ways to get out. You could, for example, offer to assist in the kitchen or dash to the store to pick up something.

If you want to leave early, come up with an excuse. For example, you could say you’re watching a friend’s pet and need to check in on it. It can be beneficial to start preparing for this as soon as possible. Say up front that you can only stay until a certain time, so that people aren’t offended when you leave.

6. Let go of some disagreements. You have no influence over other people’s lives or decisions. Even if you want a family member to change, you cannot do so on their behalf. Try not to get emotionally invested in long-running conflicts over which you have little control.

For example, perhaps your mother is always harsh on you and your siblings. As a result, you have little contact with her. She continues to be critical and push people away at family gatherings.

You may have wished your mother were different. You may want to improve your relationship with her; however, remember that it is her responsibility to change. There is little you can do for her if she continues to be resistant to changing her behaviour. Make an effort to emotionally disengage.

Also, keep in mind that family gatherings may not be the best time to address these issues. You should be aware that you can return to these issues at a later date if you believe it is necessary. Holidays will not be ruined as a result of fighting.

Part 2

Managing Your Relationship with Your Family

1. Recognize your own emotional requirements. In your relationships, you have the right to feel respected and safe. This right should not be violated by anyone. The first step in asserting yourself is determining what you require.

Everyone, including you, deserves to be treated with dignity. You have the right to be around people who lift you up rather than bring you down. Your thoughts may be skewed in a dysfunctional family. You may wonder if you are worthy of respect. Keep reminding yourself that you do.

Consider which behaviours are and are not acceptable. For example, perhaps your father’s constant criticism of your career choice is unacceptable to you. Regardless of what your father thinks, you’re proud of what you do. It’s perfectly legal for you to say so.

Tip: If you’re feeling overwhelmed or unsafe and need to talk to someone, there are resources available to assist you. Consider getting in touch with:

Text 741741 in the United States, 686868 in Canada, or 85258 in the United Kingdom to speak with a trained crisis counsellor.

If you feel unsafe or someone in your family is abusing you emotionally or physically, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or chat with an advocate online at https://www.thehotline.org/.

The ReachOut Forums: This mental health support website for teens and young adults offers a safe space where you can communicate anonymously with others dealing with similar issues. Begin by going to: Forums can be found at https://au.reachout.com/forums.

2. Maintain firm boundaries. Inform someone when they’ve crossed a line in the heat of the moment. You are not required to be aggressive or mean. You can be respectful while clearly stating where the line is.

Shopping with your mother, for example, is always a chore. She is very judgmental of your appearance and scrutinises the clothes you wear. She, on the other hand, insists on going shopping with her.

Your mother has repeatedly requested that you go shopping this weekend. Declare your boundaries clearly after the third or fourth time she asks. As an example, say, “Mom, I enjoy our time together, but I think we stress each other out when we go shopping. If you want to go out to lunch or see a movie, that’s fine, but I’m not interested in going shopping with you any longer.”

It can be beneficial to change the subject after you’ve established your boundaries. This communicates to the other party that the boundaries are not open for discussion and also implies that you are not angry with them. Inquire about a mutual friend or if they’ve recently seen any good movies.

3. When asserting yourself, use “I”-statements. “I”-statements are statements that are phrased in a way that minimises blame. Rather than making an objective assessment of a situation, you emphasise your personal feelings. They are divided into three sections. They begin with “I feel…” and you immediately express your feelings. Then you explain the behaviour that resulted in that feeling. Finally, you explain why you felt the way you did.

For example, you’re irritated because your father has insulted your girlfriend in front of you yet again. You might be tempted to say something like, “Making comments about Noel’s weight is extremely impolite. That is totally disrespectful to both me and her.”

An “I”-statement can be used to rephrase this. “I feel disrespected when you make comments about Noel’s weight because that’s an issue she’s very sensitive to, and I’ve explained this to you before,” say you.

4. Set a good example. Demonstrate genuine concern and compassion for your family. Check in with them on a regular basis and invest in them as individuals. Do not let their bad behaviour dictate how you treat them — the two should exist independently of one another.

For example, don’t respond to a rude family member by being rude in return or simply dismissing them. Try to be compassionate and understanding in your responses to them. Going tit-for-tat isn’t going to make things better.

5. When necessary, take a step back. Despite your best efforts to assert your needs, some people are simply difficult to deal with. It’s okay to leave some situations if your family isn’t responding to your attempts to assert yourself.

For example, when you tell your father to stop disrespecting your girlfriend, he is unyielding. Rather than apologising, he responds, “You’re overly sensitive. I’m only concerned about her health.” His tone indicates that he is becoming hostile.

Pushing the issue may not be worth it at this point. Your father is becoming enraged. Even as you try to address the situation respectfully, he is attempting to force an argument.

Simply walk away at this point. As an example, say, “This isn’t going to get us anywhere. Okay, I’m going for a walk.” After that, give yourself some time to calm down.

Part 3

Regulating Your Emotions

1. Consult a therapist. It is extremely difficult to deal with the emotional toll of a dysfunctional family on one’s own. A trained therapist can assist you in dealing with the consequences of familial dysfunction. Seek out a therapist in your area to help you work out your problems.

You can request a referral to a therapist from your primary care physician. You can also ask your insurance company to assist you in locating a therapist in your area.

If you are a student, your college or university may be able to provide you with free counselling.

2. Allow yourself to be irritated. Many people believe they must forgive or let go of wrongdoing. It’s normal to be angry if your family has been unjust to you. Allowing yourself to be angry when you’ve been disrespected or mistreated is actually healthy.

Forgiveness can be the final step in the healing process. However, forgiving first is rarely healthy. You must place the blame on those who are causing the problems. Don’t expect forgiveness to solve your problems.

Find constructive outlets for your rage. Speak with close friends or attend a support group. You can also write and then burn a letter to difficult family members.

3. Practice expressing your emotions. You may struggle to express your emotions if you come from a dysfunctional family. Consider how you can express yourself in a healthy and productive way. If you’re seeing a therapist, it might be a good idea to discuss this with them.

Stop several times throughout the day to identify your emotions. You may have learned to repress or ignore your emotions as a result of growing up in a dysfunctional family. Take some time to notice how you’re feeling. Also, what triggered the emotion? What are you in response to? You could keep a journal in which you record your daily emotions.

Sharing your emotions with others can help you cope with them. Make an effort to find people who will be supportive. Only share your feelings with those who respond with kindness and affirmation.

4. Learn to put your trust in others. This can be one of the most difficult aspects of dealing with a dysfunctional family. If you come from a troubled home, it may be difficult to trust. Begin by taking small risks and then progress from there.

Make an effort to seek out the help of healthy people. Get to know people who are positive and kind. Building a “family” of quality friends is critical for maintaining self-esteem and coping with family dysfunction.

You may find it difficult to express your emotions to others. Work on getting over this stumbling block. Begin by occasionally expressing minor needs and desires to those around you. With time, you will be able to express more needs and desires.

5. Take excellent care of yourself. If you come from a dysfunctional family, you may neglect your own self-care. If you’ve spent a lot of time dealing with conflict, you may have neglected your own health and well-being. Work on your basic self-care skills. This alone can help you improve your emotional regulation.

You must take care of yourself. Make sure you eat healthy foods, exercise regularly, and maintain basic hygiene.

You should also indulge yourself from time to time. Take a day off if it is necessary. Small pleasures, such as going to the movies, having coffee with a friend, or ordering takeout after a long day, should be indulged in.

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