How to Get Along with a Difficult Family Member

4 min
Article preview picture

For good or bad, you can’t choose your family. Not the one we’re biologically related to, anyway. The clan we’re raised by is enormously influential on our worldview, our values, and our idea of a good joke. But sometimes it can feel like there’s a gulf between us and the people that we’re duty-bound to love – or at least put up with – simply because we are generally linked to them somehow, or raised within the same unit. Between tricky in-laws and guilt-laden relations with parents and siblings, to dealing with bigoted relatives that you normally try to avoid at every family wedding, trying to keep the peace and manage your own sanity within an uneasy family dynamic can be exhausting. But there are boundaries we can put in place to protect our energy and time, because difficult relatives do not have a right to drain them. Here are some tips on how to manage these relationships so that everyone can get along more peacefully.

Manage expectations

When a difficult family member is being too demanding of your time, be sure to manage expectations from your side. This is an important part of maintaining boundaries, and requires clear communication so that there are no misunderstandings about what is being offered or promised. Try placating them with your good will and honesty about what you can manage in a certain time frame. For instance, if there is a family member pressuring you to see or visit them more often when doing so would cause other problems for you, try responding with something like: “I would love to see you, but my schedule is so hectic this week/month. How about…”

Find some compassion for them

Someone who regularly makes life difficult for others – or, specifically, those who enjoy doing do – is typically a deeply unhappy person. However they may come across, there is likely some unmet need gnawing away at them, even for the most obnoxious, arrogant of people. When someone exhibits this type of behavior with you, look at the wider stories of trauma in your family and previous generations – perhaps fleeing conflict or experiencing poverty. Maybe this person had cruel parents or teachers, and didn’t get enough hugs. Try to see through their armor and understand that they may be scared and lonely, and lacking the tools and self-awareness to heal that. Through this lens, you can accept them for who they are, flaws and all – in the same way you wish for your family to accept you. Who knows – although you shouldn’t be beholden to that outcome, there is a chance that treating them with this compassion may even help them to heal and improve this behavior down the line.

Find something you can connect on

Family members that are difficult will typically be craving connection. Find a neutral topic – away from politics or religion – to engage them in. Give them the attention they desire by asking for their advice on something they are knowledgeable on, such as gardening or fishing, or bond with them over the football. Make it your “thing” together, and you could even establish a routine around it, like going to a game or the garden center once a month. In this way, you can give your time together some purpose that you will both get value and connection from. It will also help you build a relationship with them that is separate from the one under the cloud of whatever it is you clash on.

Concede the battleground

Whatever fundamental differences stand between you, accept that there’s nothing here to “win”. Let them be “right”, or agree to disagree. If they challenge your views and opinions, let it be an opportunity for your faith to be tested – which is how we establish true security in ourselves. Standing firm in our own principles and beliefs is an inward journey rather than an outward one, so prioritize living them rather than performing them. Experiencing some humility will only make you stronger.

Replace your defenses with boundaries

Decide what you’re prepared to put up with, and don’t give an inch further. Until that point, be receptive and accepting. Defensive energy is usually met with the same, so softening your own energy around a difficult family member might make a huge difference in how they respond to you. Knowing your boundaries – such as the amount of time you’re prepared to spend at an occasion – creates the safety to go all in with love, kindness, and generosity, because you’ve got your own back on how much you’re willing to give.

Do your own work

Family members tend to be so triggering because their behaviors are so close to home. We see the parts of ourselves that we don’t like reflected back to us, and unhealed childhood wounds are vulnerable to re-opening. But you can use this friction as an opportunity for your own growth. Figure out what it is about this difficult family member that grinds your gears, and examine what it brings up for you. If it’s a deep emotional wound like guilt, shame, anger, grief or fear, explore where it might be coming from within you. You might need a professional to help you untangle any dysfunctional family dynamics – and a lot of self-care as you heal from them – but it will be worth it when your relatives’ words and actions no longer trigger you. It may even help you in your other relationships beyond your family, as a step on your path towards more personal growth.


All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals that influenced this article: Family Relationships and Well-Being; Communication Surrounding Estrangement: Stereotypes, Attitudes, and (Non)Accommodation Strategies; Family Communication Patterns and Difficult Family Conversations. 

Share this story
Read more
  • Article preview
    28 Jul 2022

    How Shame Can Debilitate Your Life

    4 min

    Whether or not it’s extreme enough to make us feel like the crestfallen dignitary from Game of Thrones being derided with a cutting chorus of “Shame!”, the painful feeling of experiencing humiliation or distress can wreak havoc on our well-being. Research suggests that women are often quicker to feel humiliated, and that men, on average, have greater difficulty with feelings in general – including shame. It has also found that adolescents feel shame more intensely than their elders. 

    Read full article
  • Article preview
    6 Jul 2022

    How To Be a Better Friend

    3 min

    Friendship is a wonderful thing. A good friend can do so much for our well-being, helping to reflect back all the best parts of ourselves (not to mention helping us highlight the parts that we'd like to work on), and securing our sense of belonging. Good friends can cheer us up on difficult days, help us out of a bind, offer a fresh perspective, encourage us to be brave, make us laugh, call us out when we need to check ourselves, and go along with some of the more questionable ideas on our bucket lists. It’s a special kind of relationship that doesn’t get as celebrated as a romantic partnership, but can be far more enduring – and it is not to be taken for granted. Because the core of a friendship is less in the “doing” and more in the “being”. A true friend is someone you feel completely safe with – to be silly, to be real, to be radically honest about everything that’s going on with you. And being a better friend to somebody else is about cultivating that safe space for each other. If you’re looking to put a little more heart and thought into your friendships for stronger, and more long-lasting relationships, here are some tips to help you.

    Read full article
  • Article preview
    30 Jun 2022

    How To Listen and Communicate Better For Stronger Relationships

    4 min

    "Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand." - Karl Menninger

    Read full article
  • Article preview
    20 Jun 2022

    3 Ways To Instantly Calm Yourself Using Your Breath

    7 min

    Whether or not life begins at first breath is a topic that’s still under heavy debate – many believe that it may be earlier – but one thing we can usually agree on is that with our final breath, at least, comes death. What death may actually mean to each person can differ, with various faiths and cultures each following their own belief system of what happens to our consciousness after we die, whether or not there is an afterlife, and what that may involve – but the bottom line still remains that as long as we are still on this earth, living our human existence, we are breathing. 

    Read full article
  • Article preview
    15 Jul 2022

    10 Traits That Make You More Attractive To Other People

    6 min

    There’s an age-old adage that claims “Beauty is only skin-deep.” And while we can all agree that a pleasing appearance is not necessarily an accurate guide to the character contained within, science continues to posit that “What Is Beautiful Is Good” – a stereotype that assumes attractive people are likely to possess more socially desirable personality traits, and are expected to lead better lives than their physically unattractive counterparts. 

    Read full article