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Creative tips for handling difficult relatives

Is there someone in your family who gets on your nerves? Do you sometimes find yourself distracted or impatient at work because you are thinking about an in-law, parent, child or sibling who was insensitive or obnoxious during a recent phone call or visit?

It's normal to have some stressful family interactions. Difficult relatives who may be overly critical, give harsh advice or don't seem to appreciate your efforts to help them, probably won't change overnight. But there are specific things you can do to significantly change how you respond to them.

Rather than letting your unresolved family conflicts continue to eat away at your insides, try the following:

  • Build a stronger alliance with the family members you do enjoy. It's important to identify individuals who you give you trust and support. Spend time with them.
  • Set limits with your difficult relatives. Instead of letting this person treat you like a doormat or rage in anger, set emotional boundaries and avoid power struggles.
  • Set small, achievable goals for what constitutes success with a difficult relative. If your relative has a basic personality that is very critical, self-absorbed or exceedingly stubborn, don't set up an unrealistic expectation that this person is going to be easy. Remind yourself, "I don't need to change this person's basic personality. I just need to stay healthy, calm and relaxed no matter what he or she does."
  • Remind yourself, whenever necessary, of the higher reason you're trying to learn to deal with this person. Maybe this difficult relative is married to someone in your family that you do love and that you don't want to hurt.
  • Pick one location, activity or topic you and this person both enjoy. Rather than just repeating the same old interactions that haven't worked for years, try something new. Be proactive and schedule a brief activity that has a high likelihood of bringing out the best in both of you.

If the stress of dealing with a difficult relative is affecting your physical or emotional health, talk with your primary care provider or contact the Employee Assistance Program at (608) 775-4780 or call Great Rivers 2-1-1 for a list of other helpful resources.

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