Dealing with Difficult Family Members: How to Handle it Without Winding Up in Prison

When we lived in China, I had many daily challenges. There was a language barrier. There was the fact that living there itself was challenging. It’s not easy to find things you need.

In fact, simply shopping at the mall was difficult! I once found a sweater I liked at a department store and went to pay for it. I was given a slip of paper that was stamped and directed across the store to a cashier. I had to pay the cashier and present the stamped paper, who then gave me another stamped paper, and then went back across the store to get my sweater. I know, right?

But perhaps one of the most difficult challenges I faced was trying to deal with my in-laws. I love them and care about them very much, but while we lived there, they drove me crazy!

Why? Oh, let me count the ways!

  1. They were annoying.
  2. They would butt into everything.
  3. They would make a mess.
  4. They firmly believed the air conditioner would make us sick and we’d all die.
  5. They bought ugly clothes for my daughters.
  6. They bought us a stroller the size of a compact car that couldn’t fold or be easily carried.
  7. They left food out on the counters and attracted bugs.

See what I mean?!? I could go on all day, but this isn’t about me. It’s about you and your family.

If you’re wondering how to deal with negative family members, this one’s for you! Whether they are truly toxic people or they mean well like my in-laws, one thing is for sure…when you have to contend with difficult family members, it piles on the stress.

You can try to sweep it under the rug, but like me, you will eventually blow your top. For a person like my mother-in-law, that would only serve to make her cry. But when you have to deal with a toxic family member that doesn’t burst into tears, you may have other problems on your hands.

Why You Need to Deal with Controlling Family Members

I speak from experience when I say that the day I let it go like Elsa, I was truly free. My in-laws didn’t try to control me to be manipulative or mean. They’re from a different school of thought, culture, and generation. They were trying to be helpful, which I always tried to keep in mind. They never once did anything to be mean or spiteful.

Whether your situation is like mine with in-laws, an aunt or uncle, a cousin, sibling, parent, or grandparent, it’s important to get a handle on it for your health.

The key thing here is stress.

Even if you don’t see this person every day, even if they live afar and antagonize you on Facebook, you have to deal with this stress. There’s a quote from an unknown source that states, “Hate destroys the vessel in which it resides.”

You can sit there and hate them while they loudly chew at the dinner table every night. You can sit there and hate them when they make stupid comments on social media. You can just sit there and hate them any time, but as you do, you’re only destroying yourself.

This all causes stress, which manifests in your body in countless ways. Insomnia, depression, high blood sugar, heart attack risk, and plenty of other physical symptoms of stress can genuinely destroy your vessel. And guess what? It also weakens your immune system, something you need to be stronger than ever right now in this COVID-19 pandemic.

How to Thrive in the Face of Family Members Who Make You Feel Bad

I think the trouble with irrational family members is that they’re related by blood. There’s a sense of obligation with family. When a friend does you wrong or is toxic, you can simply end the relationship and move on.

With family, it’s a little more prickly. 🙄

You can’t choose family, though sometimes, it’s not even someone directly blood-related. My friend Kim has an abusive brother-in-law. He verbally assaulted everyone until the “ish” hit the fan if you know what I mean. Her sister filed for divorce, and the whole family is a lot happier now.

In cases of abuse, it’s wise to cut the cord. But what if you’re in a situation like me where your in-laws aren’t abusive, but they make you crazy with the things they do? Perhaps they come over ALL the time and never let you just spend time with your husband and kids.

Perhaps you have to deal with manipulative family members that will lie, cheat, and steal. Perhaps Grandma is just ungrateful about anything that anyone ever does for her.

Whatever is going on in your family, you need peace. And if you can’t make peace, you need to make it in your head.

So, Leslie, how do I deal with family members that stress me out? 🙁

I’ve got your back, mama! 😀

First, breathe. In. Out. In. Out. Slowly I mean. Got it? Ok, now read!

  • Try as you might, you can’t fix anyone

This is especially true for complicated people. Let’s talk about Grandma for my one friend who asked to remain anonymous, recently complaining about her tyrannical granny. Despite she’s apparently ancient, she’s totally spry. Grumpy Granny never appreciates anything anyone does for her.

The family threw her a party for her 85th birthday and she complained about everything. The food. The gifts. My friend and her mom were in tears because they put in all this effort, and Grumpy Granny didn’t appreciate a single thing. She criticized them loudly at the party, and it made for an uncomfortable situation.

When she had told me all this, I asked her one important thing. “Was Grumpy Granny always like this?” She paused for a moment and then replied, “Well, yes, actually.” 😐

For her, that was a liberating moment because she realized she couldn’t change Grumpy Granny. All she could do was change her reaction to her. If her grandma wanted to throw a fit and act like the Queen of Hearts in Alice and Wonderland, then she wasn’t going to attempt to fix it.

Here’s the thing…if you have a Grumpy Granny personality type in your family, you will soon realize that the more you try to do for them to make them happy, the more they demand. And nothing you do measures up. Break that cycle, and you will find your freedom.

  • Use directness with controlling family members

Now, what about those confrontational people who get a rise out of setting you off? Those controlling, manipulative beasts might just be worse than Grumpy Granny.

arguing and shouting in the night at home

I have a gay friend named Jason, who has an uncle that is fully against his lifestyle. Uncle Angry, we’ll call him. Uncle Angry stirs the pot every time, and his goal is to win every argument. He has differing political views from Jason and his entire family, yet he won’t let anyone assert theirs. Uncle Angry, in his warped mind, is always right.

Well before the pandemic, Jason told me he was dreading a family get together for his cousin’s engagement. Because the party was large and seating arrangements were made, he was lucky not to have to sit at Uncle Angry’s table. The stress of knowing his rude uncle would be there made Jason feel physically unwell.

It wasn’t until I reminded him that Uncle Angry is a bully and feeds into the fear he casts upon everyone else that he stood tall and proud of who he is. When Uncle Angry approached him and made a comment full of bigotry, Jason held his ground, smiled, and walked away. It confused Uncle Angry enough that he had nothing better to say. Jason hasn’t talked to him since.

  • Sometimes listening is the best route
couple talking about problems

Other difficult family members just need an avenue for expression. For example, my friend Samantha’s mom is always the victim. Vicky Victim feels like the world is completely out to get her. No one likes her pot roast. No one picked her to host the book club meeting. It’s the world against Vicky Victim.

Samantha has always been having these troubles with her mom, but it started to get worse when the lockdowns for coronavirus began. She texted me that Vicky Victim was making her so crazy that, and I quote, “I swear she’s going to make me wind up wearing one of those orange prison jumpsuits they give murderers!”

From the outside, though, I could see what Vicky Victim’s problem was. She just needed someone to talk to. Samantha protested that all her mom does IS talk to her, but I reminded her it’s important to be a good listener. Ask questions about their point of view on the issue at hand. Why does Vicky Victim feel this way? What does she want from these people?

When you ask questions from a neutral perspective and truly listen, you help the Vicky Victims in your family stop pulling the whole “woe is me” card every day.

I guess what I said to Samantha really helped things between her and her mother. The other day, I received a delivery. It was a package with 3 bottles of wine and a note that expressed gratitude for making Vicky Victim easier to tolerate. You’re welcome, Samantha, and cheers to you!

  • Keep watch on the minefield

Then you have family members that are otherwise fine until a certain topic comes up. They’re different from Uncle Angry in that it’s something very specific that, when brought up, causes an explosion.

While important issues shouldn’t be swept under the rug, bringing them up over and over again with the same results is just pure insanity. There are a time and place to discuss family matters like these. If you couldn’t resolve them before and you find yourself at, say, a family wedding, that is most definitely not the time to trot out trigger topics.

And if you have already settled that hash and this family member keeps throwing it in your face, walk away until you both can constructively deal with the topic together. The same goes for you too. If someone in the family has wronged you, it’s not about forgetting. It’s about forgiving and moving forward for your health and sanity.

  • It might not even be about you

When you have to deal with a toxic family member, you have to remember that sometimes, it’s not personal. Sometimes, it’s just who that person is. In the case of Grumpy Granny, it really had nothing to do with my friend or her mother, or anyone else in the family that tried to bend over backward to please the grandma. Some people are just miserable all on their own accord, and you really can’t change that.


If there is something you’ve done, whether intentionally or unintentionally, it’s important to attempt to discuss it with those involved. Conflict is not easy for anyone except my friends that are lawyers by trade.

In all seriousness, sometimes you have to have those unpleasant discussions. And more often than not, they can be productive. You may be surprised to learn something new about the situation that makes you drop your weapons, so to speak. You may also earn the chance to show them you weren’t at fault. Regardless of the situation or outcome, you will free yourself from this stress and feel better when you get it out of the way.

The Most Important Thing About Dealing with Negativity Among Family Members

We all have someone difficult in our families. For me, it was a challenge when I lived close to my in-laws. As I mentioned, they’re truly lovely people, but they annoyed me to no end. Others of you have very toxic, evil, and deceitful people among your lineage.

Always remember it:

Whatever it is that makes it difficult for you to handle that family member, please remember that your health is more important than anything. Do not cave in to the demands of people who simply can’t be pleased.

You should always maintain an air of respectfulness as much as humanly possible, but you’re not a doormat, and if someone is treating you like one, pull the rug right out from under their feet. You have to put yourself first. If you’ve genuinely wronged someone, do the right thing and apologize. But if they’ve wronged you, even if they won’t admit it, take the high road and walk away. Your health is much more important than that.

With the pandemic, it might be easy to avoid these toxic people in your life. Facebook makes it easy to snooze people or hide them from your newsfeed, so you don’t have to deal with the drama. Use this time in self-isolation to work on strengthening yourself and quelling your stress. This way, when we finally do get to come together for gatherings, you will be ready for anything!

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