family relationship

How to Navigate Difficult Family Relationships

Occasional disagreements or misunderstandings are a normal part of family relationships. However, if you have a difficult relationship with one or more family members, it can start to impact your mental health. Taking steps to navigate disagreements or disputes is vital to looking after yourself.

Here we will look at how to deal with difficult family relationships.

What Makes Family Relationships Difficult?

Human relationships and interactions are complicated. By their nature, family relationships are often longstanding, giving plenty of time and multiple opportunities for conflict to arise. Communication breakdowns, a difference of opinion, manipulation and even abusive patterns can all form part of an unhealthy relationship.

Unlike other relationships or friendships, it can be harder to walk away from a family relationship. Birthday parties, weddings and events including Thanksgiving or Christmas may thrust you back together with a family member you’d rather keep your distance from.

If you’re wondering how to cope with difficult family relationships, there are a number of strategies you can try. If the relationship remains difficult despite trying the following tactics, you could benefit from online therapy.

Set Boundaries

One of the first steps in navigating a difficult family relationship is to think about your boundaries. Just as you should protect your physical body, you also need to protect your emotions. This is where setting boundaries comes in.

When your emotional boundaries have previously been breached by a family member, it can lead to feelings of fear, anxiety, stress, guilt, or unhappiness. Deciding your boundaries, and knowing how to stop someone from crossing them in the future, is key to avoiding further emotional harm.

Setting emotional boundaries involves recognizing that your emotions are separate from your family members. This puts you in control of your emotional response to any unwanted words or actions.

When deciding on your boundaries, you may want to consider:

  • Saying no to family events that you don’t want to go to
  • Putting yourself first when you need to
  • Asking for help when you need it
  • Setting aside time to be by yourself when you need space
  • Telling the person in question that they make you feel uncomfortable or have treated you badly.

As you start to set your boundaries, you may begin to feel more in control, less anxious, and better prepared for managing a difficult family relationship going forwards.

Boundaries in Conflict Situations

If you find yourself in a difficult situation with a family member, you’ll need to make them aware of your boundaries. If an argument breaks out or you feel manipulated, unsafe or belittled, don’t put up with it any longer.

Tell the family member that they are making you feel uncomfortable. You may be surprised to find that they were unaware that their behavior was causing you harm. Ask them to speak to you calmly and to properly explain what they mean.

If their behavior continues to escalate, remind (or tell) them of your emotional boundaries. The following examples may be helpful:

  • “You are not to criticize me just because we are family. Your opinion on my lifestyle is not needed.”
  • “I want to spend time with you, but I cannot do that if we continue to discuss this topic.”

If their behavior continues despite explaining your boundaries, tell them calmly and politely that you are stepping away from the conversation. Walk away and put a physical distance between you. It is ok to leave the house or venue to take some time to yourself. Breathe, relax and remember that you have put boundaries in place to prevent emotional harm from occurring.

Take a Break

Just as it is ok to walk away from an abusive or unsafe situation in real-time, it is ok to step away from that person figuratively, too. If you don’t feel comfortable or your mental health is at risk, you can decline invites to meet up in real life and stop interaction via social media.

Whilst you take some time for yourself, practice self-care and mindfulness to strengthen your emotional state and boundaries. Stepping away from any drama can be helpful in regaining any lost perspective. Crucially, it can also give you time to accept that the difficult relationship may never change. This acknowledgment can feel very hard, but it signals the start of you learning to manage the relationship without it causing you pain.


It is likely that you know the triggers or catalysts that make a tough relationship more difficult. To avoid conflict, you can set boundaries to put certain topics off-limits. Money, lifestyle choices, or your career are all examples of off-limit topics that may help to minimize difficult conversations or hostile behavior.

It may also be helpful to avoid meeting in a location that might be a trigger, such as a particular relative’s home. Meeting only on the neutral ground may help to avoid conflict.

Active Listening

If you have developed some emotional boundaries and are feeling strong, you may feel able to engage with your relatives to try to understand their point of view.

Active listening involves giving your full attention, being empathic, and truly synthesizing what they are saying. This may include hearing their anger or frustration. If your relative feels heard, it may help to dissolve their anger.

It is crucial, however, that your relative is not given free rein to offload in a manner that will cause you further damage. Engaging in this way is therefore only advisable once you have strong boundaries in place.

Remain Positive

Often, it is easy to become dragged down by a family member’s negativity. Before seeing or talking to them, reflect on your own positive outlook on life.

If you can feel yourself slipping into their downward spiral, take some deep breaths, remain calm for the count of 10, and then walk away if you need to. Reaffirm that you will not let someone else’s pessimism harm you.

Find Support

When faced with a difficult family relationship, it is important to make sure you feel supported. Find a friend or ally who can help you find the strength to either persevere with the relationship or walk away.

It is best to choose a friend or relative who can listen and give objective advice. For this reason, connected family members may not be the most appropriate choice. Find someone who won’t feel stuck in the middle, so that you can talk it out freely.

If finding someone impartial is difficult, a therapist can help you navigate the difficult family relationship. This can be one of the most successful ways to set boundaries and keep them in place. Unlike someone you have a personal relationship with, a therapist doesn’t have competing interests. They will be completely invested in you and your mental health, helping you to step away from conflict or abusive situations.

Online therapy offers a safe way for you to express how difficult a relationship has been. Your therapist will understand your point of view and support you as an individual.

Final Thoughts

Managing family relationships can be a difficult process. To protect your well-being, it is vital that you set boundaries to prevent further emotional damage. Online therapy can be a great investment for learning how to deal with difficult family relationships.

hannah england

Hannah England

Copywriter with a clinical background | UK, Bristol

Hannah England is a freelance copywriter with a medical degree. After working as a doctor for several years, she now writes medical and well-being articles. Hannah endeavors to empower people by providing informative content that allows them to make healthy choices for improved physical and mental health. Hannah is part of the LGBT+ community and an inclusion expert, allowing her to write copy that is… Read more