How to Cope with a Dysfunctional Family

Three Parts:Dealing With Family EventsManaging Your Relationship with Your FamilyRegulating Your Emotions

It is never easy to cope with a dysfunctional family. Family dysfunction can drain your emotional and physical energy. Family get togethers may be very difficult and managing conflict may feel impossible. To cope, learn to set boundaries and avoid subjects that cause disagreement. Limit contact with family members that cause problems and learn to put yourself first. Remember, your emotional needs and wellbeing should be valued. When coping with a dysfunctional family, know and stand up for your own rights.

Part 1
Dealing With Family Events

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    Keep your expectations realistic. Dysfunctional families may be resistant to change. When going into a family situation, work on keeping your expectations in check. If you accept some conflict and difficulty is inevitable, you may be less frustrated by disagreement.[1]
    • Know your most difficult family members. Limit the amount of time you spend with these people. If your mother, for instance, tends to be the cause of drama, keep your distance.
    • Do not expect a dramatic change. Breaking free of a cycle of dysfunction is difficult. If it does happen, it will take time. Go into the event knowing it will likely be difficult.
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    Take someone with you to family events. Having a buffer can help you cope. Ask a friend or romantic partner to accompany you to support you emotionally during family functions.[2]
    • Your family may be on better behavior in the presence of an outsider. Is there anyone you could invite? Maybe a friend of yours does not have Christmas plans. See if he or she wants to join your family's festivities.
    • Give your buffer a fair warning, however. Let him or her know your family can be difficult at times.
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    Limit alcohol. Alcohol tends to fuel emotion. If your family is difficult by nature, too much alcohol could lead to an increase in conflict.[3]
    • There may be problem drinkers in your family. If this is the case, it's a good idea to call family members and request an alcohol free get together.
    • Try to provide other beverages, like sparkling cider, instead of alcohol.
    • Some family members may be uninterested in attending an event without alcohol. These people will likely not show up, or leave early. Limiting alcohol can be a great way to keep the more difficult family members away.
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    Steer the conversation away from conflict. If your family fights, you can take it upon yourself to limit argument. It's frustrating when it's up to you to make sure people get along, but sometimes it's inevitable. Listen to various conversations and work on changing the topic when necessary.[4]
    • By now, you likely know the topics that trigger drama in your family. For instance, maybe your Uncle John is chronically unemployed due to his drinking. He tends to become very sensitive when the topic is raised.
    • When you hear the problem topic arising, act fast. For example, your dad says something like, "John, have you applied to any jobs lately? It's been, what, six months?"
    • Jump in right away and steer the conversation out of the danger zone. You can try to play a game, like 20 questions, or simply change the subject. For example, "Dad, actually, Sarah just applied to a job at a bookstore. She's really excited about it."
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    Have an escape route. At times, it's appropriate to walk away. If someone is getting hostile or difficult, know an excuse you can use to dodge an interaction.[5]
    • Think of various ways to slip out for a minute. You could, for example, offer to help out in the kitchen or run to the store to get something.
    • If you want to leave early, think of an excuse. You could say you're watching a friend's pet and need to check in on it, for example.
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    Let go of some conflicts. You do not have control over other people's lives and decisions. Even if you want a family member to change, you cannot do it for them. Try to avoid becoming emotionally invested in longstanding conflicts over which you have little power.[6]
    • For instance, your mother is always very critical of you and your siblings. As a result, none of you have much contact with her. At family events, she continues to be critical and push people away.
    • You may wish your mother was different. You may want a better relationship with her. However, keep in mind it's her responsibility to change. If she continues to be resistant to altering her behavior, there is little you can do for her. Try your best to emotionally disengage.

Part 2
Managing Your Relationship with Your Family

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    Recognize your own emotional needs. You have a right to feel respected and safe in your relationships. No one should violate this right. The first step to asserting yourself is identifying what you need.[7]
    • Everyone deserves respect, and that includes you. You have a right to be around people who bring you up rather than down. In a dysfunctional family, your thoughts may be skewed. You may question whether you deserve respect. Remind yourself you do.
    • Think about what behaviors are and are not acceptable. For example, maybe your father continually criticizing your career choice is not acceptable to you. You're proud of what you do, regardless of what your father thinks. It's well within your rights to assert as much.
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    Be firm about boundaries. In the moment, let someone know when they've crossed a line. You do not have to be aggressive or mean. You can be respectful while simultaneously making it clear where the line is.[8]
    • For example, shopping with your mother is always a headache. She's very critical of your appearance and tends to scrutinize the clothing you like. However, she continues to push you to go shopping with her.
    • Your mother has asked you repetitively to go shopping this weekend. After the third or fourth time she asks, state your boundaries clearly. Say something like, "Mom, I love the time we spend together, but I think we stress each other out when we go shopping together. If you want to get lunch or see a movie some time, great, but I'm not interested in going shopping with you anymore."
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    Use "I"-statements when you assert yourself. "I"-statements are statements phrased in a way to reduce blame. Instead of placing an objective judgement on a situation, you emphasize your personal feelings. They have three parts. They begin with "I feel..." after which you immediately state your feelings. From there, you explain the behavior that led to that feeling. Lastly, you say why you felt the way you did.[9]
    • For example, you're frustrated that your father has again insulted your girlfriend in front of you. You may be inclined to say something like, "It's incredibly rude to make comments on Noel's weight. That's completely disrespectful to me and to her."
    • This can be rephrased using an "I"-statement. Say something like, "It makes me feel disrespected when you make comments on Noel's weight because that's an issue she's very sensitive to and I've explained this to you before."
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    Walk away when necessary. Despite your best efforts to assert your needs, some people are just very difficult. If your family is not responding to your attempt to assert yourself, it's okay to leave some situations.[10]
    • For example, your father is relentless when you tell him to stop disrespecting your girlfriend. Instead of apologizing, he responds, "You're being hypersensitive. I just care about her health." You can tell, from his tone, he's getting hostile.
    • It may not be worth it to push the issue at this point. Your father is getting angry. Even as you try to respectfully address the situation, he's trying to force an argument.
    • At this point, just walk away. Say something like, "This isn't getting us anywhere. I'm going to go for a walk, okay?" Then, give yourself some time to cool down.

Part 3
Regulating Your Emotions

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    See a therapist. It's very hard to deal with the emotional toll of a dysfunctional family alone. A qualified therapist can help you deal with the damage done by familial dysfunction. Seek out a therapist in your area to work out your issues.[11]
    • You can ask your regular doctor for a referral to a therapist. You can also ask your insurance provider to help you find a therapist in your area.
    • If you are a student, you may be entitled to free counseling from your college or university.
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    Allow yourself to feel angry. Many people feel they must forgive or let go of bad behavior. If your family has been unfair to you, it's okay to feel anger. It's actually healthy to allow yourself to experience anger when you've been disrespected or mistreated.[12]
    • Forgiveness can be the last step in recovery. However, it is rarely healthy to forgive first. You need to put the blame on those causing the problems. Do not expect yourself to fix problems via forgiveness.
    • Find productive ways to vent anger. Talk to close friends or go to support groups. You can also write a letter to difficult family members and then burn it.
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    Work on expressing your emotions. If you come from a dysfunctional family, you may have difficulty expressing your emotions. Work on ways to express yourself in a healthy and productive fashion. If you're seeing a therapist, it may be valuable to talk this over with him or her.[13]
    • Stop to identify your emotions several times a day. Growing up in a dysfunctional family, you may have learned to repress or ignore your emotions. Try to take time to notice what you are feeling. Also, what caused the feeling? What are you responding to? You can try keeping a journal in which you record your daily feelings.
    • You can cope with your emotions by sharing them with others. Work on finding people who are supportive. You should only share your emotions with people who respond with kindness and affirmation.
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    Learn to trust others. This can be one of the hardest parts of coping with a dysfunctional family. It may be difficult to trust if you come from a difficult home life. Start by taking small risks, and then build from there.[14]
    • Practice seeking out the support of healthy people. Get to know people who are kind and positive.
    • You may have difficulty telling others how you're feeling. Work on getting over this hurdle. Start to occasionally expressing small needs and wants to those around you. You can begin expressing greater needs and wants over time.
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    Take good care of yourself. You may neglect your own self care if you come from a dysfunctional home. If you spent a lot of time coping with conflict, you may put your own health and well being aside. Work on practicing basic self care. This alone can help you better regulate your emotions.[15]
    • You need to do things for yourself. Make sure you eat healthy meals, get exercise, and take care of basic hygiene.
    • You should also treat yourself on occasion. If you need to take a day off, take one. Indulge in small pleasures, like going to see a movie, having coffee with a friend, or ordering takeout after a long day.


  • Be aware that others may be "dumping" their negative feelings on you. If someone is feeling helpless or powerless, they may criticize you in order to feel stronger. Do not take this personally.


  • If dysfunction takes the form of physical abuse, end the relationship. No one should be hitting, kicking, or otherwise physically harming you.

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Categories: Creating Life Balance