In therapy: dealing with difficult family members

Our resident columnist, psychotherapist Jess Henley PGDip. MA, offers advice on how to handle tricky situations during the festive season
Photography: Stocksy

So, what’s the issue?

Anxiety/tension arising from dealing with difficult relatives and family members. You might revert to feeling like a hurt, bullied, bewildered teenager the minute you’re back in the family fold.

What are the signs?

Familiar arguments and feelings from childhood can reappear, because the scripts and roles you learned as a child come to the fore.

How to tackle it

Give yourself permission to change. This is the critical first step as, if you change, you are shifting the family dynamic by default. Parents and siblings may then feel threatened or uncomfortable because they’re being forced to act differently, too, which is why they may try to undermine your efforts. To stick to your plan, try these tactics:

Make a list of the behaviours and beliefs you’d like to alter.
Next to each one, write down the behaviour or belief you’d like to have instead. For example, if you’re always the peacekeeper in the family, you might want to choose not to get involved when there’s a falling out and to tell the arguing parties that it’s not your business. Or you might be tired of engaging in pointless conversations that inevitably spiral into an argument without ever reaching a resolution. So you could stop engaging in them, and gently mention this. Then you can either change the subject, leave the room and make a cuppa, or go for a walk.

Pick one of the items on your list – the easiest first – and start practising it.
Once it feels like the behaviour is established, choose another, and so on.

Anticipate reactions to the new you.
Before you meet your family, imagine how they might react to you, and come up with a plan for how you’re going to respond.

Accept that you can’t change others but that you do have the power to change how you react to them.
Don’t try to win old struggles. Instead, choose not to be affected by them by calmly changing the subject and moving it towards more neutral territory.

Have an escape.
Go prepared with a strategy to extract yourself when you notice those old responses being triggered. It might be that the dog needs to be let out, or you need to go to the loo. Breathe deeply and slowly into your tummy until you feel yourself calming down and you’re ready to re-engage.

Don’t be discouraged.
If you find yourself slipping back into those old patterns, don’t be deterred, especially if they’ve been ingrained since you were young. Be kind to yourself and start again when you feel ready.

Practise, practise, practise!
Repetition is the key to making a new belief or behaviour stick, until it simply becomes a part of your new, natural way of being.