This article is the eighth article in a series of articles about difficult people.
Q: What are some strategies for dealing with difficult family members?
A: There are several strategies that address improving communication directly. First, individuals should not make assumptions about what other people are feeling, but rather they should ask. People also need to be sure to alternate speaking and listening. Sometimes compromise works in this respect: “We can do things this way now and the next time, we can do things your way.” Two people do not often feel equally strong about the same issue, but if they do, compromise probably will not work.
If another person quickly becomes defensive when verbally confronted with an issue, or issues, an option would be to suggest both parties write down their concerns, then exchange written lists. Finally, two family members can negotiate preferred activities, aiming to include activities that each wants to do.
There are some general suggestions not directed specifically to communication skills. First, one should delay an immediate reaction to someone, especially when one’s gut feeling is defensive. The quicker a person can become objective about a difficult person, the less likely that person will personalize comments. A useless strategy is to spend time and energy wishing a difficult person were different. Better a person should change one’s own thinking and response as a way to produce change in a difficult person.
Another tactic is to enter an interaction without a preconceived idea of what to expect. If a person can remain open-minded and really listen, the difficult person, in return, might be more willing to engage in discussing an issue. Acknowledging each person has a different view, a family member can then propose that there might be more than one way to approach an issue. Such a strategy postulates the one making the suggestion and the difficult party can work on seeking solutions.
The last general suggestion is to guard against becoming difficult oneself when confronted with a difficult family member, especially when tired, stressed or both. A person not normally difficult needs to recognize triggers that can initiate one’s own difficult behavior. The material in this article thus far is from the book entitled “Coping With Difficult Families,” written by Dr. Jane McGregor and Tim Gregor.
Unlike mental disorders that have a beginning and a remission, or an end, personality disorders are lifelong, usually beginning in adolescence or early adulthood. They are maladaptive patterns that cause distress, impaired functions or both. Usually the behavior traits in a person with a personality disorder are evident in most areas of that person’s life. The most well-known types are narcissistic, antisocial, dependent, and paranoid. There is also a catch-all classification: “ ‘personality disorder, not otherwise specified (PDNOS).’ ”
Approximately 10 percent of adults carry a diagnosis of PD. These persons are routinely described by one or more of the following:
Rude, mean, hateful, critical, demeaning, arrogant, selfish, insensitive, domineering, controlling, demanding, pushy, opinionated, negative, outspoken, sarcastic, impossible to please, inconsistent, irrational.
Completely reasonable and logical responses that work well with normal people do not work with persons who have personality disorders. Relatives often continue to try these responses repeatedly. Reasoning with PDs is based on the faulty assumption that these difficult persons use reason and logic in their own thinking. Confrontation with PDs often ends up with the other relatives angerly describing the PDs behavior, demanding change, and threatening consequences for no change. Using reasoning and/or confrontation with PDs only leads to arguments, anger and frustration by everyone involved.
Most interactions with persons with Personality Disorders do not end well. The author of this information, Dr. Paul K. Chafetz, Ph. D., clinical pscyhologist, offers a list of learnable skills for family members. First, a person needs to accept the person’s psychopathy and give up the wishful thinking of having a loving and positive relationship. A family member needs to remember to avoid confrontation. Goals for persons with PD’s need to be appropriate and limited to their capabilities. Family members need to learn how to visit with these difficult relatives, at all costs avoiding the use of reason and confrontation.
Referral to a therapist and/or a psychiatrist for medication are good suggestions but difficult to achieve. Generally, persons with personality disorders do not recognize that anything is wrong with them. That being true, convincing them to seek therapy and/or medication is extremely difficult and highly unlikely.
Persons with personality disorders are frequently provocative and produce strong reactions in other family members. When the family tries reason and confrontation to deal with the provocative behavior, those responses produce either denial or escalation or both in the person with a PD. Thus, the relative is even more hurt, angry, resentful and confused. The family member then suppresses these unpleasant interactions and again tries to relate to the relative with a PD in a normal way. Both parties continue to repeat ineffective ways of dealing with one another, much the same way as parents continue to yell at children for years, despite the lack of change in the children’s behavior.
Next week’s article will continue with strategies for dealing with difficult family members.
Judy Caprez is professor emeritus at Fort Hays State University.