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How To Handle Dysfunctional Family Members

Many of us have family members whose values and/or behavior are questionable. They maybe heavy drinkers, religious fanatics, sexual predators or simply highly critical of us.

If these family members are our parents, we may even think that their behavior is our fault. Children raised by dysfunctional parents often do.

We may have tried to change them, bargain or plead with them but nothing’s ever worked.

Growing up in a dysfunctional family had a profound impact on us. It’s often only years later that we recognize it. The difficult feelings mixed with relationship patterns that we developed to cope; the mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and substance abuse that took their toll.

For years, as adults, we showed up for family functions, smiled when we felt bad or laughed when we didn’t want to. We always end up feeling like a fraud. Then again, the hurt was so severe, we may not have been able to maintain our veneer of “I’m fine” around them.

We expect family members, because they’re our family, to always know how to care for us and love us well. But that’s not often the case and it’s them who can hurt us the most.

It can be confusing for us. We love them but it’s like playing a dangerous game. They may love us but also not know us because we keep our real selves hidden. Just because they are in our family, it doesn’t mean they have access all parts of our life. We’ve always felt the need to keep a lot of secrets.

As A Child Of Dysfunctional Parents We Learned Three Rules:

  1. Don’t Talk: pretend everything is fine and ensure everyone thinks we are a normal family

  2. Don’t Trust: don’t ask for help because something bad will happen

  3. Don’t Feel: don’t express feelings because - at best we will be ignored and at worst it could lead to more violence, blame, and shame. Stuff our feelings, numb out and distract us from the pain.

As adults, we respond to the world yet we still living under these rules. We then search out other people who follow the same rules because they are so ingrained in us.

Have you ever thought:

“Why do I always end up in relationships with the same kind of people?”

It’s because we seek others with the same code of conduct even though our rational is telling us this will be another painful disaster.

With this in mind, we have to be easy on ourselves when trying to handle dysfunctional family members because, at the end of the day, we may be slanting towards the old rules.

So How Do We Handle Dysfunctional Family Members Now We’re All Grown Up?

If they are still behaving with cruel impunity towards us, when we are cut to the core by something they say or do, it’s impossible to just take a deep breath and move on like nothing ever happened.

People will hurt us, including family. But we don’t have to live like a victim and we can start moving away from those people and take ownership of our life.

How To Handle Dysfunctional Family Members?

Let’s First Look At ‘Attachment.’

Attachment is when we become hopelessly tangled up with another person. It can involve excessively worrying about them, perhaps moving into obsession. We may try to fix or rescue the other person to the point where our own mental health is as stake.

Why do we do this?

We do it to keep ourselves in a (familiar) state of chaos and drama. As long as we maintain the focus on trying to change another person, we become detached from ourselves. We lose personal power and our ability to feel and think for ourselves.

What purpose does that serve?

It helps us disassociate from what’s really going on around us.

This tactic is often left over from our childhood where we tried to separate from what was going on around us. It may have been being the focus of our parents’ criticism or abuse taught us to be “somewhere else” when that happened.

Disassociating distracts us from our own fears of abandonment, rejection and wounded pain. It keeps us separated from our inner turmoil. But, it also keeps us separated form our inner joy.


The Reverse Of Attachment Is Detachment

Detachment is the process of separation, which leads to freedom. It involves separating from the agony of the involvement with another person but not necessarily from the person himself or herself.

Acting with detachment means doing the right thing for the sake of our well being, and the relationship with the other person, without worrying if it will be a success or not. We do what we need to do with grace and self-love.

It’sneither kind nor unkind. It doesn’t mean judging or condemning the person or situation from which we are detaching. Separating ourselves from the adverse effects of another person’s behavior towards us is a means of detaching. Yet it doesn’t necessarily mean physically separating.

Detachment isn’t:

  • A hostile withdrawal of affection.

  • A distance from other people that leaves us unaffected by problems.

  • Not being oblivious to other people and our concern for them.

Detachment is a loving release of trying to resolve other peoples’ problems and a re-engagement of trying to manage us.

This allows us to let go of an obsession with another person’s behavior and start to lead happier, more manageable and dignified lives.

Through Detachment, Here Are Some Realities About How To Handle Dysfunctional Family Members:

  • We’re not responsible for any other adult’s affairs (unless we’re legally bound)

  • We can’t solve other people’s problems, no matter how much we worry about them

  • Every time we want to get involved with someone else’s problems, we focus on our own instead

  • We don’t try to clean up the disasters that others have created

  • We allow them to face their own pain

  • We come to see that thinking we CAN fix their pain is arrogance; we are not that powerful

  • We find a way of understanding that their abuse directed towards us is not our fault; it’s their problem, not ours, to fix

  • We get an objective overview of the family member by understanding they are dysfunctional

  • We don’t have to obey them

  • We can set them free without feeling guilty

  • And we become free to feel peace in our hearts

  • This will energize us and move us forward in our own lives

  • We learn to mind only about our business

  • In doing so, the dysfunctional family members may pick up the slack and finally start taking care of themselves


The Ultimate Awakening

Although we want to blame the dysfunctional family members for making our lives difficult, if the truth were told we can't really blame them. They don’t really know what they are doing because they are unconsciously acting from dysfunctional genetics of their own.

They are carrying forward pathology from their own childhood that never got the opportunity or wisdom to heal.

Even though it didn’t work for us, they did the best they could at the time. Often their best was our worst.

If we turn the tables to us and looked at when we made a mistake in the past, a bad mistake, we probably didn’t know know it wasn’t the right thing to do or we did the best we could at the time?

It’s not that we can simply brush aside what our dysfunctional family have done or said to us because it does carry weight especially after we have had to experience it over and over and over again.

However, if we look a little closer and see the larger picture, we realise we were collateral damage of a dysfunctional pattern of behavior.

It’s Time To End These Destructive Patterns!

How do we do this?

Here’s 5 ways on how to detach from our dysfunctional family members:

1. Let go of our wants and needs

Sometimes we want something very badly for and from another person. We think we know what they need to make their life change for the better. But this enables an unhealthy dependency in both parties. We must learn to let go and let the other person figure things out for themselves. It can be hard, but we must focus on ourselves and let them find their own path.

2. Establish healthy boundaries

We must know our limits and be able to decipher between our needs and wants and the other person’s needs and wants. We have to learn to say “no” even when we want to say yes.

3. Don’t do for anyone what he or she can do for himself or herself.

Unless this is someone who’s dependent on us, like an elderly adult or a young child, we don’t do more than we need to do in our relationships. Trying to do everything for someone else who is capable is only destroying our own energy levels.

4. Don’t fall for the victim story

A dysfunctional family member loves a great sob story. We mustn’t fall for it. If we get a little detachment, we can learn to separate our heads from our hearts.

A sob story is a manipulative way of trying to get negative attention. We don’t allow them to manipulate or emotional blackmail us. In detaching we’re doing them as much of a service as we’re doing for ourselves.

5. Seek help.

We look for professional help if we can’t learn tough loveor are having difficulties detaching.


Somewhere in our hearts we knew that these patterns of behavior weren’t right, that something desperately needed to change.

We may be the first to change this family pathology.

Learning how to handle dysfunctional family members and changing old destructive patterns will begin an amazing journey of healing for everyone.


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