Family ties

Too much family togetherness can sometimes prove a challenge. Psychology expert Alice Boyes reveals her top seven tips for dealing with difficult relatives.

Words Alice Boyes. Illustration by Angela Keoghan

1. Cultivate compassion

Toni Bernhard, author of How to Wake Up, says you can cultivate compassion for difficult relatives by “reminding yourself that, like everyone in life, they face struggles and difficulties. Understanding that life can be hard for them, just as it can for you, will enable you to feel closer to them as fellow human beings. This can help you accept your relationship with them, imperfect though it is.”

2. Situation or personality?

We all share a tendency to overestimate the effects of personality and underestimate situational factors in other people’s social behaviour. For example, if a relative is skipping a family wedding, we’re likely to jump to the conclusion that it’s due to having an uncaring personality rather than consider that there might have been a cascade of situational factors that caused their absence. It’s a phenomenon known as Fundamental Attribution Error and there is a large body of research into the topic if you’re interested in knowing more.

3. Is your tricky relative an HSP?

Often when we interact with relatives it’s in a group situation. Highly Sensitive Persons, or HSPs, often don’t do well in group situations. They are overstimulated when surrounded by people and noise, and this overstimulation can cause them to behave in ways that give the impression they’re abrupt, aloof, unfriendly, snobby or shy. If you suspect a relative might have HSP tendencies, try to find opportunities to interact with them on a one-on-one basis. One challenge is that High Sensitivity isn’t a widely understood concept, so the HSP may not understand their own reactions. A telltale sign someone is an HSP is if they seem more comfortable talking about deep and meaningful topics than they do chit-chatting. See Elaine Aron’s classic book The Highly Sensitive Person for more information.  

4. Remember you can’t control how others respond to you

Toni Bernhard offers the reminder that all you can do “is speak and act with the intention to be kind and helpful. Then you have to let things take their course. Some relatives will come through for you and others will disappoint. Learning to accept this gracefully will help you be at peace with your life as it is, difficult relatives included.”

5. Allow time for mutual respect to develop

This tip especially applies to relationships with in-laws. People have bad initial reactions to family members’ new partners for all sorts of reasons. Getting a bad reaction from your partner’s parents isn’t something you should take too personally. It may take years for mutual respect to develop between you and your partner’s family.

6. Find an area of common interest

When you’re going to be spending time with a difficult relative, think ahead of time about topics of conversation that could be of mutual interest. Be it investing, frugal living, achieving the perfect lawn, baking, sewing, or any topic you know your relative has a passionate interest in, if you share that interest or are curious about the subject it might provide a means of engaging in conversation in an authentically attentive way. 

7. Limit your entanglement

Use common sense – don’t buy a family bach with difficult relatives or plana family vacation that could lead to you being rained in and stuck with each other for days on end.
If you’re concerned you might get your buttons pressed and fly off the handle, then limit your alcohol consumption when you’re together so you don’t end up confronting them in a way you’ll later regret.

Alice Boyes, PhD, is author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.

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