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How to Cope with Difficult Family Members during Quarantine

Being at home during the COVID-19 quarantine presents different challenges and benefits for each of us.

For some people, extra time at home allows them to enjoy quality time as a family that they wouldn’t ordinarily have.

And for others, being with family 24/7 is exhausting, frustrating, and demoralizing. Spending large amounts of time cooped up at home can put a strain on any relationship.

Or you may be experiencing a little bit of both. 

How to cope with difficult family members during quarantine

This article will focus on coping strategies for being quarantined or stuck at home with a difficult family member (or roommate) – someone who is argumentative, controlling, demanding, overly dramatic, invalidating, blaming, inconsiderate, entitled, or critical.

You may be able to use some of your existing coping strategies. So, it may be helpful to start by making a list of ways you normally cope with this person and then crossing off or adjusting those that aren’t possible due to a COVID-19 quarantine.

I hope that the following list will give you some additional coping strategies to try.

Set boundaries

Difficult people tend to push the limits and not respect boundaries. Boundaries are important because they are a way to protect ourselves from harm. If we don’t set boundaries, others can “walk all over us”, leaving us hurt, resentful, and drained (physically, emotionally, financially). Boundaries are a way for you to tell people how you want to be treated and what you need. Read more about setting boundaries with kindness here.

Use “I statements” rather than “You statements”

Starting a sentence with you tends to be accusatory and puts the other person on the defensive. Notice how it feels when someone says, “You’re such a slob. You left your dirty socks on the floor again!”

In contrast, when we use “I statements”, we communicate our feelings and make a respectful request. It might sound like this: “I feel frustrated when I see your dirty socks on the floor. Keeping the house clean helps me feel less anxious. So, it would be really helpful if you’d put your socks in the hamper.”

Which approach do you think is more likely to get a positive response and foster cooperation and connection? There’s no guarantee that your family member will stop throwing her dirty socks on the floor, but an “I statement” will probably create less tension than an accusation or demand.

Don’t justify, argue, defend, or explain

Some difficult people are demanding, controlling, and seem to get a perverse enjoyment out of upsetting others. If you’re dealing with such a person, it’s best not to justify your behavior, argue, defend, or over-explain yourself. Doing so isn’t productive. It just prolongs the conflict or gives the difficult person more ammunition to use against you. Read more about how and why not to justify, argue, defend, and explain in this article.

Let some things go

Another prudent strategy may be to let some things go. Perhaps they are issues that you can address once the quarantine is over and you have more options, or they may be issues that will resolve themselves once we go back to our normal routines. Either way, it’s okay to consciously choose to let somethings go as a short-term strategy (just be careful that it doesn’t become a long-term strategy because avoidance often creates additional problems).

Don’t give unsolicited advice or try to control others

Sometimes, in an effort to be helpful or manage your anxiety, you may give unsolicited advice. The problem with unsolicited advice is that even if it’s meant to be helpful, it’s often perceived as controlling or judgmental, which can lead to resentments or arguments.

Now is a great time to pause and be sure your advice or ideas are wanted before you give them. Read more about giving and receiving unsolicited advice here.

Avoid divisive topics

Some topics predictably lead to arguments and hurt feelings. Sometimes difficult people try to bait us into these conversations. So, don’t take the bait! Be prepared by knowing what topics are divisive in your household; don’t bring them up yourself, change the subject, or leave the room if they come up.

Go for a walk

Going for a walk (or bike ride) is an easy way to physically distance yourself from those you live with. Take advantage of this option, whenever possible. The exercise and fresh air are also good for you, too.

Journal or find other healthy outlets for your feelings

Your feelings matter and they want you to acknowledge them. Journaling is an easy and convenient way to check-in with yourself, acknowledge, and process your feelings. If you need help getting started, this article is all about the benefits of journaling and this article has gratitude journal prompts.

Connect with friends online

Social distancing or quarantine doesn’t mean social isolation. Yes, it’s more challenging (and not quite the same) to visit with friends online, but it does help! Schedule time to talk, play a game together, knit together, etc. You may be surprised by what you can do “together” through video calls.

Get support from a therapist or support group

Socializing with friends and family is great, but it’s not a substitute for the kind of support you get from a therapist or support group. So, be sure to continue or get started with these activities, especially if you’re having a hard time.

Most therapists have moved their practices online, as have 12-step groups like Al-Anon, Codependents Anonymous, Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families.

To find a therapist, you can ask your physician or friends for recommendations or search an online directory such as Psychology Today or Good Therapy. The National Alliance on Mental Illness also offers support groups, crisis services, and other resources for those struggling with mental illness and their loved ones.

Engage your mind

Distracting yourself when things get overwhelming can give you a needed mental break and help you get through the remainder of this challenging time. And even though movies and social media are distracting, they aren’t as effective as doing something that requires more concentration, like crossword puzzles, art projects, or learning something new.

And, of course, be mindful that you don’t use alcohol, drugs, food, or other unhealthy ways to distract yourself.

Make time for self-care

When life gets tough, we need more self-care. This includes regular exercise, enough sleep, relaxing activities, religious or spiritual practices, eating healthfully, socializing, enjoying hobbies, laughing, and practicing gratitude. If you tend to ignore your needs, try asking yourself how you feel and what you need. This will help you figure out what kind of self-care you need. Read more about self-care here.

Your safety and wellbeing are important. If you are in immediate danger, please call emergency services (911 in the US) for help. You can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for immediate help.

I hope these tips are helpful and that you remain physically and emotionally healthy as you quarantine or stay at home with difficult family members.

Additional articles about coping with difficult people

©2020 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
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The Better Boundaries Workbook

A step-by-step guide to setting boundaries in all areas of your life.

Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

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