How To Deal with Unbearable Family Members

Your mother is driving you crazy.

She’s always nagging about something.

There’s nothing you can do to please her, and every time you talk to her she makes it clear how disappointed she is in your life choices.

You’re really thinking of cutting the cord, but there are few things that keep you tethered.

And then there are all those family get-togethers that you dread.

How do you deal with people who make your life difficult? And what if these people are related? Is there anything anyone can do to escape the clutches of an unbearable family member? We reached out to our mental health professional panelists for advice on how best to handle tricky relatives . . .

Samantha Rodman, PsyD is a psychologist practicing in the Washington, DC metro area.

David Klow, LICSW is a psychotherapist and executive director of Skylight Counseling Center in Chicago.

Amanda Morgan-Russo , PsyD is a psychologist practicing outside of Boston.

Sarabeth Broder-Fingert, PhD is a board certified clinical psychologist who practices in Massachusetts . . .

Question: What should I do if I can’t stand my mother? And what about those times when you need to interact with her but it’s not possible to avoid them? Most crucially, does staying connected with such an “unbearable” person affect your mental health (for example, make you more likely to develop depression and anxiety)?

    — Needing Distance from Mom

                  Samantha: I would encourage you to first seek some therapy.  If this is not an option for financial reasons, then at least engage with some support groups (such as online forums).  It sounds like your mother has very negative impact on your mental health.   You also need the perspective of someone who is unbiased and can help you gain strength and coping tools so that you can navigate these complicated relationships effectively.  Otherwise, I think it’s important to set boundaries with your mom about what topics are off-limits and stick with them no matter how much pushes back or tries to guilt you.  She may still try and continue to put you down but her comments will not affect you as much.

    — No Touchy!

                  David: It’s hard for me to advise from a distance what is the best thing for your relationship with your mother.  In the end it seems like this is a decision that only you can make after weighing all of the pros and cons .   What I will say is that having difficult relationships in life whether it be with a friend, significant other or family member does increase our risk for developing depression and anxiety.  This is because having difficult people in our lives really make us stressed out and emotionally exhausted.  These things take a toll on our mental health and increase our risk for depression and anxiety.  The term we use to describe this is “emotional friction”. If your relationship with your mother is causing you a lot of emotional friction I would encourage you to think about cutting the cord so that you can reduce your exposure to her and lessen the impact she has on your mental health.  

    — Learning Self-Esteem

                  Sarabeth: Your question implies that your mother’s lack of positive regard for you contributes in some way to more general feelings of inadequacy.  By establishing limits with her, you are taking back control over how much of her influence negatively impacts you, which will begin to build up a reservoir of self-respect inside of you.   I think this is an important step in learning to respect yourself.  I imagine you have heard the term “toxic” before when it comes to family members, but what does that really mean?  Toxicity can take many forms, and parents are often responsible for the “poisoning” of their children at times.  One way to inoculate ourselves against this is by opening our eyes to recognizing when it is happening so that we’re not falling into old patterns with them without being conscious about why that might be .   

                — Amanda: It’s always tough when you have a relative who makes your life difficult.  And how do you deal with someone who is impossible? The