Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Dealing With Difficult Family Members

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You might be surprised at how often I see questions about how to deal with family members--or you might not :). I had a reader ask about my advice on dealing with family, and with the many holidays approaching, I thought now would be a good time to discuss the topic. I have thought it over and come up with 10 tips to help you manage difficult family members. The first five focus on you establishing limits and being firm when you need to be. The last five focus on you being understanding of family members. Then I have a bonus tip at the end.

Communicate Openly
My first bit of advice is to communicate openly. My minor is in communications and I whole-heartedly believe that open communication is the best path to take.

Use "I" language. When a family member does or says something that hurt your feelings, talk about it. "When you said XYZ, I felt like you were trying to infer that I am not doing my best as a mom. Is that what you meant?" Explain how their actions make you feel.

Don't assign meaning to their actions. Notice how I phrased the example. I didn't say, "When you said I was a bad mom, it hurt my feelings." State facts. The family member said XYZ. Just restate what they said. Then explain how you felt when it was said.

Most of the time, the other person won't realize that what they are saying is abrasive at all.

You also need to communicate openly about what is going to happen with the child. If you are going to be putting your child down for a nap at a certain time, state that upfront so everyone knows your plan--even if they are very aware of the child's routine.

Address Issues As They Arise
I think it is best to address problems as soon as they arise. Don't let them fester. Use your communication skills to discuss the issue as soon as it surfaces. Some people might need a cooling off period, and that is fine. Once that has been reached, talk the issue out. Come to some understanding and agreement.

Set Your Own Rules and Limits
I think one of the hardest things about getting married is trying to juggle holidays. My husband and I were engaged over Thanksgiving and Christmas. Trying to juggle time between our two families was so stressful, that the next year when the holiday season came around again, we were both completely dreading it.

Then when you add a child to the mix, things get even harder! Understandably, everyone wants to see the child, which makes balancing time even more important.

You and your spouse need to set limits and rules that work for your little family. This will need to be dependent upon how close your families live to each other and what you want to do. My grandparents live quite close to each other, so when I was growing up, we were able to visit them both on big holidays.

My Mom's family is small, while my Dad's is large. My Mom's family decided to do Thanksgiving dinner the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and my Dad's did it Thanksgiving Day. There were some years Saturday didn't work for my mom's family, and those years we had Thanksgiving for lunch and Thanksgiving for dinner. Since my Mom's family was smaller, it was easier to juggle schedules. We always made it work (or they did I guess).

I have friends who do Thanksgiving Day with her family each year and Christmas Day with his family each year.

My own little family now does alternating years. For example, this year we will be with my husband's family on Thanksgiving Day, and my family on Christmas Day. We will do a Thanksgiving dinner with my family on a different day around Thanksgiving and a Christmas party with my husband's family around Christmas. This has worked well for us and is much easier than trying to make it to everything on each day.

You also need to set rules and limits outside of the holiday season. Decide how often you will travel. Remember to be upfront with family about your plans. When Brayden was a baby, we had family wanting us to travel to visit every weekend. Finally, when he was just over 4 months old, I put my foot down and said we had to set some limits. It was not working well for Brayden to travel weekly, and our little family wasn't getting time to spend with each other. We decided we would travel once per month. I can't say this was well-received initially, but it has worked out since.

Be Your Child's Advocate
As you are setting your own family's rules and limits, remember that you are your child's advocate. Your child needs you to do what is best for her. Do not feel like you cannot stick up for her.

Babies have no voice other than crying, followed by the addition of babbling for older babies. Even a five year old who can speak and communicate well cannot really be his own advocate. A child doesn't necessarily desire what is best for him, and even if he does and expresses it, that doesn't mean other adults will listen.

Expect the Adults to Behave Like Adults
My most basic advice when people ask how to deal with difficult family members is that the adults are adults and should be able to behave as such. Is it disappointing when a baby goes down for a nap? Sure, but that doesn't give an adult the right to throw a little tantrum of their own over it. Adults are adults and can act like adults. Adults can put the needs of a child over the needs of their own, much less the wants of their own.

Adjust to New Dynamic
There is a new dynamic when you become a parent. You are no longer simply the child, niece, grandchild, etc. You are a parent who has a new responsibility. It takes time to adjust to this new dynamic. It takes time for everyone to figure out exactly how their roles fit together in this new dynamic. Open communication can really help these situations, but it isn't as textbook easy as saying "if you talk about it, it will all work out."

I do think in the end that honesty and open communication is the answer, but that doesn't necessarily mean one conversation will lead you all to peace and harmony.

Take What You Can, Leave the Rest
When Brayden was about 9 months old, I was feeding him in front of my Grandmother. She is a great woman who raised 7 children of her own. As I was feeding him, she started giving me a list of things I needed to be sure to do while I fed him. I had never seen that side of my Grandma before (the bossy side).

Later, I asked my Mom if Grandma had always been that way. This Grandma is my Mom's Mother-in-law. My Mom said she had always been that way. I said, "How did you handle that? It would drive me crazy!" My Mom's reply was, "I took what I could use and left the rest."

Easier said than done sometimes, but I think that is excellent advice. When you get unsolicited advice from anyone (and you know you will), take what you can and leave the rest. People are usually just trying to tell you what they learned helped them, not criticising what you are doing.

Create a Saying
Create some sort of reply you can give when you get advice from people. I have heard a range of these over the years. Some are something like, "I am glad that worked for your family" or "That is very interesting; we will have to consider that." Some are a bit more blunt, "I am glad that worked for you. We feel like XYZ is what is best for us." 

Having a saying prepared helps you when you get those bits of advice you weren't seeking. Those moments can take you off guard, and can also cause you to become defensive. Rather than lashing out, you can have a saying in response. Then you can think about it, take what you can, and leave the rest.

Try to See True Intent
This is a key. Try to look beyond the words and see what the persons intentions are behind their advice and actions. When it comes to family, the family member really wants what is best for you and your child. In the case of my Grandmother, she felt she had experience that could help me be a better mom. And she was right--she had good things to say. I felt defensive about it because they were things I already did and felt like her telling me these things was her assuming I hadn't the intelligence to apply them in the 9 months I had spent as a mother. This leads to another good idea, and that is to leave your pride at the door. My Grandma had no idea if I was doing those things or not; she just wanted to make sure I knew about them and applied them to my children.

In the case of family who are demanding on your time, it is most likely because they love you and love your child and want to see you all. The "how" might not be right yet, but the "why" behind it is full of pure intent.

Have Flexibility
While you are defending your child, setting the rules, and being her advocate, don't forget to be flexible as you can. If your baby can sleep in someone's arms for a nap, allow it to happen. If your child can miss a nap, go ahead. If your child can be late for a nap or woken early from a nap, go for it. All children are different. Brayden couldn't be very flexible with those things, but McKenna is quite flexible--although she has NEVER been one to sleep in arms, even as a newborn, and Brayden was.

Write in a Journal
I think this accomplishes two things. First, it allows you to "vent" about difficult situations without having to slander someone in the process. That is a good thing.

Second, you can refer to it when you have your own grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It will give you something to refer to and remember what it was like to be that young mother receiving advice that sounded like accusations of poor parenting. Then you can avoid doing the same to those around you.



mrs. martin said...

This was EXACTLY what I needed to read today! My baby boy and I are about to take our first trip of many this holiday season and I'm a little nervous (especially since my husband won't be with us for this trip) about one particular part of the visit. I will certainly be reading this post again when we get there to keep it fresh in my mind :)
As always, thanks for the endless great advice!

AA said...

Thanks Valerie! A very appropriate post for me at the moment! So very much appreciated!!!

I just wondered.. further to this post, I find my mother in law very domineering and difficult. She has wonderful intentions but we are vastly different in our mothering styles which leads to much frustration on my part. I am hoping to use some of the tips you have listed here to help. However, my biggest problem with her is that i don't feel she adequately supervises my 14month old son when she looks after him. There have been quite a few incidents where i have walked in to find him doing things that i don't consider safe/appropriate when she is looking after him. I don't know how to address this as she has raised 4 children of her own, (however, she tells stories of them doing crazy things that i wonder how they could ever have done if they were adequately supervised -which adds to my nervousness). How do i approach this without sounding like an overprotective and obsessive mother (which i know i am not)? Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

Matt and Courtney Stewart said...

thank you for posting this! As a mother of a 7 month old I have been struggling with this after recently moving in with my in-laws. It is hard to find the balance of firmness and flexibility.

Plowmanators said...

you are all welcome!

Plowmanators said...


That is a tricky one for sure! I think my advice would vary based on how often she watches him. It sounds like she is around him pretty often.

A hard thing is that she obviously doesn't see anything wrong with the things you are uncomfortable with. It is who she is.

So the question really turns to how important is it to you? If it is very important, which would make sense if it really is dangerous, then you will have to stay around when she is around and stay in charge.

If it comes to that, I would sit down with her and say something like, "I know that you love son and I think you did a great job with your own kids. I really feel uncomfortable with son doing XYZ. I have tried to shake it off, but I can't, which has led me to decide that I shouldn't. I am his mother and know him best. I do not want him doing XYZ, and ask that you don't allow it."

Then if it continues after that,

"I asked you not to allow XYZ and you still are. I can't leave you alone with him if I can't trust you to respect my wishes on this issue that I feel very strongly about."

My friend has a MIL who things a young child (as young as 2) is okay watching PG-13 movies. My friend is not okay with it. MIL doesn't care and still tries to show the kids the movies even though my friend and her husband have emphatically and clearly told her no.

Once their kids were old enough, they told them that before they watch any movie at grandma's, they have to call home and ask first. If they don't, they don't get to sleep over anymore. They do call before any movie.

So once your son is old enough, you could institute something like that where you put a lot of the responsibility on him. Until then, you might have to stick around.


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