How to manage difficult family visits better

A family heap of lemurs with black and white faces

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Every family has conflict at some stage. It’s inevitable when people with strong views get together. But some family members may be so easily offended, that every visit ends with hurt feelings. How can you stop getting caught up in these dramas during difficult family visits?

Let’s say your parents or siblings express a lot of negative emotions whenever you see them. They get annoyed that you’re not doing what they think you should. Or they don’t agree with some of your opinions.

You’ve probably been through these situations dozens, if not hundreds, of times. Yet chances are, you still get upset when it happens. And that’s when your thoughts and emotions get ambushed.

Of course, we’d all like visits with family to be pleasant. But that may not be how it is for you.

So how can you deal with family more effectively? This is the first of two articles on the same theme. 

Dealing with difficult family visits

Deep down, you may be hoping that one day it’ll be different. That relatives will show they care about what you’re doing, even if they don’t agree with it.

But what if you’ve tried several times to explain your position, and how their criticism makes you feel? What if nothing’s changed?

1 Time to accept reality

Sometimes we don’t want to accept reality. But now it’s time to take stock. To accept the situation for what it is, not what you want it to be. Wishing won’t make your family members react the way you want them to.

You can’t make other people change. And unfortunately, they probably don’t see much reason to.

Now, it might seem that this isn’t the way it “should” be. Family “should” understand and care about their own. And it’s disappointing when they don’t.

But this may be how it is in your family.

And it’s something you can’t do much about. You don’t have any power to control how others think or act.

So you can’t expect much change from their side.

2 You can only change your reactions

The real problem is that you keep expecting your family to change. It’s these hopes that set you up to be shocked or disappointed every time.

Your frustration and disappointment may make you furious at how inconsiderate your family seems. You can’t understand why they’re so insensitive. And rehashing past scenes that were awkward or hurtful makes you feel even worse.

For your well-being, it’s time to change how you react to these difficult family visits.

3 Acknowledge your feelings

Firstly, it’s helpful to acknowledge your feelings. Acknowledge the fact that your family isn’t all you want it to be.

Acknowledge that you’re hurt that family members seem unsupportive. That you may have missed out on nurturing or empathy in earlier years.

For a short period, let yourself be aware of how this makes you feel.

This isn’t in a maudlin way, designed to make you feel a victim. It’s simply a statement of fact, that this is how you feel.

4 Choose to feel compassion

Rather than being angry, choose to feel compassion.

It’s helpful to think of possible reasons why family members can’t act the way you’d like them to. Viewing the situation in a different light may reduce your hurt and anger.

Everyone, including your parents or siblings, differs in how empathic or sensitive they are to others.

Sometimes this is genetic. Sometimes low empathy is also caused by feeling stressed or overwhelmed. And sometimes it’s caused by both genetics and life experiences.

Think back to a time when you were incredibly overwrought. A time when you were so wound up, that your problems took all your mental space. Could you be bothered about anyone else’s issues right then?

Perhaps your parents or siblings have also felt like this at times.

Past experiences of family members

Think about what you actually know of the past experiences of various family members.

Older generations may have been through terrible experiences without any counselling. Even your siblings may have been through all sorts of issues you don’t know about. 

Imagine what family members have suffered if they’ve been through the horror of civil unrest. And what of the difficulties of migrating from another country? Or being discriminated against, assaulted, in a major accident, in pain, or in a violent home?

Perhaps you have been through some of these traumas yourself. 

Any of these may cause emotional or physical pain. And that can often limit the person’s empathy for others, especially if they’ve become isolated or self-involved.

So reflect for a while.

Do you really know what your family members have been through in their private lives?

Keep in mind there may be many reasons that stop some family members from being empathic at times.

Even just knowing this can make it a little less painful for you. Disappointing as it is, their behaviour isn’t a rejection of you as a person. For whatever reason, they may be limited in their ability to feel empathy for others.

However, please note you don’t have to tolerate abusive behaviours. Here, we’re discussing ordinary but difficult family visits, without abuse involved.

5 See their good side

Knowing what you now know, can you change your perspective at all?

Because of past experiences of difficulties with family, you may be dwelling on the unhelpful things family members do.

This can become a vicious circle – the more negatives you see, the more you expect to see.

Eventually, you don’t see any of their good points at all.

But no-one has only negative qualities. Everyone has done something positive at some stage of their life.

So make an effort to remember these.

Acknowledge the helpful as well as unhelpful qualities of each person. Each time you criticise someone, remind yourself to keep a more balanced view.

That will also help lower your resentment and internal tension. In addition, you’re learning how to tap into your own reserves of empathy as well.

However, this isn’t a magic cure for the conflict or issues you may still face on family visits. You still need to be strategic, and have a plan for the next visit

6 Be strategic – have a plan

If you know you’re in for a difficult family visit, see this as a plus. Now you can prepare yourself ahead of time.

By rehearsing likely scenarios, you’ll look and sound more confident. And you’ll be able to put limits around what you’re willing to do.

Visualise yourself as staying calm and unhurried in the face of others’ protests. Imagine yourself answering them in a firm and level tone of voice. Practise saying what you want to say over and over in different ways.

In the next article, find out some top tips to help make these visits less stressful. The more you practise, the easier it will be when you’re feeling flustered.

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