Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Deal With Family Members Who Stress You Out

Better in-the-moment responses towards difficult family members.

Pexels photo
Source: Pexels photo

“Families are like fudge…mostly sweet with lots of nuts.”

After the holidays, I see a lot of people recovering from spending too much time with their families. Before the holidays, they mistakenly thought to themselves, “This year will be different; this year we’ll have a nice time together.” But then it’s never different. The time they spent with their families was like walking on hot coals; they couldn’t wait for it to be over. It’s like all their reasoning and maturity went away when faced with close-minded comments and overly opinionated uncles. Then, to top it all off, they get mad at themselves for letting these things bother them. Can you relate?

Feeling overly agitated, like you’re going to burst whenever you’re around family, isn’t a new phenomenon. However, there are ways to better prepare yourself any time you have an unwanted family reunion.

Dealing with stressful situations in the moment

So, your annoying aunt asks why you aren’t married yet, or your parents scream at you to help them with something before you've even had a chance to close the door. Going in with a clear mind and making a deal with yourself to take on any situation in a rational way is a good start, no matter how you’re greeted. But at the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that you have the right to naturally get upset by others’ unthoughtful actions. The crucial part is knowing that just because you’re upset doesn’t mean you have the right to act out from those emotions. In fact, it will probably only make the situation worse if you retaliate.

A good place to start is by taking a few deep breaths, trying to reduce your anxiety around the stressful situation by bringing in your rational mind. Breathe out, and disengage by remaining factual. If your parents are asking you to run off and help with something, tell them you’ll look into it after you close the door and are able to say hi to everyone, or maybe even after you eat. If your pushy aunt asks you why you’re still single, make a joke. If you’re too agitated, just say you’ll talk about it later. That will give you time to relax and think about how you want to deal with the situation if you want to talk about it at all.

Sometimes just acknowledging that you’re annoyed is enough to give you room to deal with the frustration and anger. If it's not enough, practice a coping skill like deep breathing, or talk yourself down from the situation by telling yourself, “They don’t mean to be annoying,” or, “Things will calm down once I get settled.”

Develop a strong sense of self

When people fail to develop a strong self, their well-being and functioning usually depend on what others say or don’t say, instead of on what they personally think. Essentially, their sense of self-vanishes in the presence of others, especially in the presence of family. This happens because many people try to manage the anxiety of everyone in their family instead of their own. It would better serve them to look inside themselves and see how they’re managing and feeling, rather than being so concerned with others’ behaviors. When we lack a strong sense of self, we want to be and do what everyone in our family expects of us. Ignoring our own needs results in an experience of anxiety and discomfort whenever we’re surrounded by multiple family members at once.

Ask yourself, “What difference would it make if I held the belief that the people in my family can handle themselves?” Change happens when you shift the way you view a situation. Whenever an issue or argument arises in your family, do you get uncomfortable? Do you think you have to ease the situation and be the one to carry the conversation? Do you get uncomfortable when others get agitated? Then, when you can’t stand being with your family, do you believe the only solution is to distance yourself and ignore them? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you’re emotionally connected to others. This is normal, of course; however, there are ways you can better regulate your reactivity towards your family while staying emotionally connected to them.

By developing a sense of self, you build the ability to self-regulate and better manage your anxiety, which brings about changes that allow you to be less reactive to your family members; thus, your need for everything to go smoothly decreases, as do your expectations and feelings of distress.

Feeling less stressed around family is all about learning to manage your own part in your relationships with others, instead of trying to manage everyone else’s feelings. It means being part of your family while being able to control your own functioning at the same time. What a lot of us unknowingly do is adjust our internal functioning to help keep our family in harmony, which has adverse effects on how we feel about ourselves. By paying attention to your body, mind, and emotions when you’re interacting with your family, you become capable of balancing your co-occurring needs for togetherness and individuality.

Remember, you don't have to always agree with your family.

Family is family; they can be a source of comfort or the main source of stress at times, but they’re still a big part of your life. We think that we should agree all the time and get along in order to be a nice, functional family. However, there’s no rule that says you have to get along with everyone in your family all the time. Being related doesn’t mean you’ll get along in every situation, share the same political views, or even enjoy each other's company.

It's a fantasy to assume that just because there’s a family event, you automatically have to become a picture-perfect family to enjoy it. You’re only responsible for yourself. So be kind and respectful, but don't force yourself neglect your true views out of fear that someone else will have a different opinion. Be strong enough to excuse yourself if a conversation gets out of hand, and spend more time with your favorite cousins or siblings.

Remember, when a difficult family situation arises and anxiety is high, avoiding the issue and distancing from family isn’t particularly helpful. Work on being who you want to be, even when you’re around people who have different opinions or make annoying remarks; that includes responding in ways that are suitable for you and beneficial to your functioning and health.

More from Ilene Strauss Cohen Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today