Four Tips for Handling a Difficult Family Member
Do you have an obnoxious uncle, a surly son, a snide sister or a mean mother?
Few people can hurt us as much as the people closest to us. Usually, that’s family. Most people have at least one family member who is verbally brutal, judgmental or just plain thoughtless. Unfortunately, when we react to the rude comments these people make, our reaction can easily make us look worse than them. Here is a good example of how this can happen:
When I was 22 years old, I went with my friend Jackie to her parents’ house for Christmas Eve dinner. I was a little nervous about going, because Jackie had, over the two years that I had known her, told me many stories about how critical her father was. He had said things to her in the past like, “Well, Jackie, looks like you’ve put on the proverbial Freshman Fifteen,” and “I never thought a child of mine could be as poor at math as you are.”
Jackie had a large family, and dinner was served buffet style. As all of the twenty-some people were bustling around filling their plates, Jackie’s dad said, “Watch out everyone, don’t get between Jackie and the food.” Everyone laughed. That is, everyone but Jackie and me. I was looking at Jackie, as a momentary look of devastation crossed her face. Then she did something extremely surprising to everyone. She dropped her plate of food on the tile floor, and stomped out of the room with a look of impenetrable hatred directed at her father.
Everyone stood in stunned silence for a moment. Then her cousin said, “Wow, what’s with her?” Another relative said, “Man, she’s touchy.” I seemed to be the only person there who understood the background, and that Jackie was not reacting to that one comment. She had finally snapped after a lifetime of putdowns and insults from the man who was supposed to nurture and protect her.
Fortunately, it’s entirely possible to NEVER draw the negative attention to yourself, while still defending yourself. Here is the “magic formula.”
Tip #1: BE PREPARED. Before your family event, it’s important to do some thinking. Try to recall some of the rude comments this person has said to you in the past. What basic theme do they follow? Imagine the upcoming scenario (location, event, e.g., family dinner), who will be there, and exactly what your critic might say in those circumstances. Next, think of some comebacks that you can pull out of your metaphorical back pocket and throw at your critic as needed. Expect a mean comment. It is better to be prepared for something that doesn’t happen than it is to be unprepared for something you didn’t foresee. See the examples for comebacks below in Tip #3.
Tip #2: BE CALM. Vow to stay calm, no matter what. Remember that your critic’s attacks upon you say more about him/her than they do about you. Do not let yourself get worked up. The calmer you remain, the more effective your comeback will be.
Tip #3: BE ASSERTIVE. “Assertiveness” is basically this: Speaking your mind in a way that is not designed to hurt the other person.” Here are some examples of some effective assertive comebacks for situations like this:
“Dad, comments like that are hurtful.”
“Excuse me, that was uncalled for.”
“That’s nice. Real nice.”
“I don’t understand why you feel a need to say something like that to me.”
Tip #4: BE STRONG. The worst thing you can do is let a critical or verbally brutal person hurt you. If you prepare yourself in advance, stay calm, and say something assertive, you will appear unscathed and will earn the admiration of all those around you. Then, when you go home, think it over and remind yourself that this person is attacking you because of his or her own weakness. Don’t take it in. Be Strong.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.