How To Deal With Crazy Family Members (yes, you’re not alone)

You have a crazy family. At least, I’m betting you do if you’re reading this post. And it’s a relatively safe bet anyhow, since just about everyone I meet has at least ONE crazy family member that drives them up a wall. They’re there, they’re family, and they are NOT going ANYWHERE anytime soon. You’re stuck with them, and you’re dreading (or not exactly looking forward to) the next encounter with them as well.

Think you might benefit from a few thoughts to get you through the next time you have to interact with your crazy family? Here are 3 things to keep in mind to keep you sane the next time you visit grandpa (or another of your oh-so-loveable relatives).


1. Set your expectations before you go.

Families are Forever – I wonder if the slogan was meant as a promise or a threat.” – Brady Udall

Sure, you may be going for a “vacation,” but you know full well that the time there is going to be anything but vacation-ey. Or, you may find yourself simply needing to pick up the phone to check in with the family. But when it comes to crazy family members in general, you know you’re going to have that feeling in your gut, just before you talk to them, that feels something along the lines of a mix between first-date jitters, and just finding out that you have to go to jail.

Listen to that feeling, and do yourself a favor: set your expectations low, and set them realistically. Family does not always equal fun. You can’t return your father-in-law to the nearest Costco (about one of the only things you can’t return there). Realize that much of what family represents is duty, obligation, and ultimately a connection that transcends the happiness that we feel when we’re with friends. Such connections demand more of us than we want to give sometimes, and yet we need to.

Why? I’m not sure any of us really knows the answer to that question, but setting your expectation right off the bat that fun is not the goal is going to help when you’re plotting out what you’re going to get from the experience, and who knows, maybe it will turn out better than you hoped (and planned!) for.


2. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.

Boundaries are THE most important part of dealing with family members that you dread to see by far. For the uninitiated, a boundary is simply a rule (made AHEAD of time) that you set for yourself (and for your family) that governs how you will interact with another person or group of people.

Examples: a healthy boundary with family might be that you’re willing to get together once a month with them (but not once a week like grandma wants so she can show off her weekly quilt creation), or perhaps you decided that you’re willing to have conversations around only certain topics with dad (time to snip that politics talk in the bud, has it ever turned out good in the past?), or maybe a family member will simply not stop being rude (in which case a firmer boundary than usual might need to be set, and yes that may include not seeing that person in the future).

No matter whether you’re dealing with likeable or barely-can-stand family members, boundaries are crucial, since you’ll know how to address the difficult and awkward scenarios before you see them, and not have to figure it out when you’re in the moment.


3. Forgiveness is essential.

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” – Lewis B. Smedes

As difficult as it sounds, forgiving your most difficult to interact with family members is going to be very important for future relations – not necessarily for them, but for you. Understand, you only have so much emotional energy for any given day, and family is one of those things that can drain you dry faster than your second cousin at the local pub. Forgiving your family is a direct assault against allowing them to invade your mind and your thoughts, since the alternative (not forgiving them) creates levels of anger that is hard to ignore or repress. Think of forgiveness as the ultimate anger-reliever (and you can’t find it in pill form).

Remember too that forgiveness is NOT becoming new best friends with your extended family member, nor is it forgetting what the person did. Rather, it’s the idea that you will not hold them responsible for their actions, and the promise that you won’t use it as “ammunition” in the future to bring them to the righteous justice that they so richly deserve.

Ultimately, what we’re really talking about here is empathy, the act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Maybe grandma has a real personality disorder. Perhaps your sister-in-law has had some real trauma in their past. Maybe that cousin has his OWN family members that constantly get on his nerves, and he’s just taking it out on whoever is around. Who knows, but the point is, if you can at the very least get a partial sense of where that family member is coming from, it’s going to be easier to interact with them, since you’ll be seeing more clearly the humanity that you both share, and not just the all-too-obvious weaknesses that come to the surface every time you see them.


When was the last time you had to deal with a crazy family member? Did you come out unscathed? Any advice for the rest of us to get us through our next encounter with family? If so, share below!


About the Author:

The owner of Life by John and a specialist in the field of career and life coaching, John Patterson helps people every day with various relationship, career, and general life issues that have a direct impact on their lives. John spends most of his free time with his wife Sheila and their two cats Kitty and Spock.


  1. Lucy Hirsch March 29, 2014 at 4:24 PM

    Finally finding I am not alone, others have difficult family members! Now, after years of therapy the answers are available. Thank you.

    • John Patterson March 29, 2014 at 4:40 PM

      Hi Lucy! There is not doubt in my mind that most (if not all) of us have crazy dysfunctional families to a certain extent, so you’re certainly not alone. What I suppose you have to do is decide, am I able to manage and cope with my family members in a positive approach, or are they at the point where they are a serious negative issue in my life that needs addressing, but my hope is that your family can be a source of happiness and fulfillment in your life despite the craziness :-)

  2. Sarah December 7, 2014 at 3:05 PM

    My in-laws are literally insane. For example, my father-in-law recently was really upset that we didn’t bring our kids to visit him in the hospital when he was receiving treatment for cancer. However, that occurred before my kids were even born. He does not have dementia; he’s just a pathological liar and usually can’t tell the difference between lies and truth. Last year for Christmas, we invited my in-laws in May for a big celebration on Christmas day, as it is also my father-in-law’s and my son’s birthday. Well, they called on Christmas Eve and told us they were “too busy” to come the next day. I haven’t spoken to them since. My husband has met up with his father a few times with rather disastrous results (accusations, lies, etc.). Is family really worth the effort? I am not convinced.

    • John Patterson December 8, 2014 at 1:54 PM

      Hi Sarah, thank you for sharing and I feel a lot of sympathy around your family situation for you. I certainly hear some hopelessness around family in general, and I don’t think anyone could fault you for those feelings considering what you’ve gone through. However, I for one am certainly convinced that family is worth the effort, provided that such family does not continue to hurt you or abuse you over the long term (the stronger the pain/abuse, the less long term of course). For one, from a social contract perspective (and a possible religious one for those religious among us), I think we don’t have any choice in the matter in the sense of giving family members grace and time and effort, even when we can’t stand them sometimes. Secondly, family can add something special to our lives that friends (even good ones) simply cannot do, and that can make them worth the time as well (especially when looking back on our past from future elderly years). Don’t ask me to articulate that “specialness” that I’m referring to, but I suppose the word “deep” comes most to mind. Regardless, family has no place in our lives when they consistently hurt us, but have every place in our lives when they’re simply, how shall I put it, annoying and/or inconvenient (in my humble opinion).

  3. Julie August 2, 2015 at 8:39 PM

    My husband and I have been married for 13 years. We have 2 beautiful children. Long before we were married my in-laws have been a thorn in our side. My husband left the Catholic faith and everything has been rough since. His parents have no desire to be with our children. They have never met my son. My husband has met with them and other family members to work things out. The major problem is my sister-in-law. The family unit revolves around her. She is the most vocal. She has sent my husband a slew of texts over the years with name calling, threats, and attacks. We aren’t even sure why she is so angry. My husband met with her to talk about these issues. She had dates and times recorded in a journal of the times we had wronged her. I apparently once rolled my eyes at her several years ago and I wouldn’t allow her to give my 1 year-old at the time cake and Mountain Dew. My husband asked if she could get past those things and she said that she couldn’t. He offered reconciliation, but she would not accept it. I’m sure we haven’t done everything right, but I don’t know what to do anymore. His family has no value in us. They seem disinterested when my husband calls, but act differently on Facebook. I finally stopped trying so hard for them to like me and my children. I haven’t seen them in 2.5 years. I just feel sad for my husband who continues to receive waves of mean texts that come and go. Often he won’t respond hoping to extinguish the behavior. Any advice?

    • John Patterson August 5, 2015 at 3:35 PM

      Thanks for the comment. Advice is not something a coach ever gives, however I’m curious as to what positive things the in-laws provide in your lives. If the answer is none, perhaps the issue here is not so much their actions but your boundaries. Personally I do not allow individuals to speak into my life who do not contribute positively to it, family or no. It’s my personal belief that the closer the individual is to you (for example, family being very close and an acquaintance not very), the longer they get to turn around negative behavior, but there is always a time limit. Certainly not me necessarily, but you might want to consider getting a coach to help if this is a recurring theme in your lives and you don’t know where to go from here.

  4. Fliss December 14, 2015 at 5:19 PM

    My in laws are insane. On a family holiday the Mother attacked me verbally and told me I’d ruined the children and have made them too needy because I tell them I miss them. After having her yell and wave her finger in my face and then lie to her husband what happened and we’re both abusive to my husband about me we moved hotels. Since then they’ve said no birthdays, no christmasses, won’t help with their only grandchildrens education, took my car away (that had been a gift) told my husband he’s worse than his brothers (one is a drug addict turned schizophrenic the other is a problem gambler) and have continued the abuse for months. My husband works for them and is actively looking for other employment. I feel like it’s past the point of repair and that they’re either malignant narcissists or are actually insane. Either way, horrific people that I want nothing to do with. And don’t want my children near. When telling his father about our new baby due next year all he said was, you should’ve thought about that before you moved hotels. Some people!

  5. Wilson January 8, 2016 at 9:10 AM

    My son is 30 and never been able to manage his finances. He is hard working and makes good money for his age, but from the very beginning he was not responsible enough to have a family and now he has several kids and never can meet expenses. I have visibility into his main bank account, but he has been doing what he normally does outside this account so my hope that I could help manage his finances by having this visibility has not worked. I know for sure if I withdraw from his life it will be catastrophic, but it takes a lot of energy and stress just to keep close to him as a family member. Saw a movie last night “All Good Things” and the resemblance to my situation is similar in that there is some good but craziness about the whole thing. The star of this movie went through life doing what he could and violated several of life’s rules and really didn’t pay for all the damage and suffering he caused. I have hung around for the family sake and to help innocent bystanders, my grandkids, but sometimes I wonder if my sacrifice is worth anything. My son, although I love him dearly, is in many ways opposite of who I am which is very painful especially since the logic he lives by always keeps him in the red so to speak. On the good side, I’m very truthful and harsh with him. He admits his lack of grip and respects my seniority/wisdom, otherwise I would be long gone. We seem to be catching up slowly with his expenses, but the lack of grip on finances on his part always exists. He owed money to everyone, including uncle Sam, but I think he has caught up some and hopefully we can receive his tax return and put it to good use in the budget. I heard some of your comments about family members and sticking with them as much as possible. Sometimes they will flat bankrupt you unless you run away in a timely manner. I know there is no easy answer, but ultimately for the ones who conducted their lives in a respectful and responsible manner the right to abandon the family member drama/chaos should always be an option. I know first hand of several family cases where one black sheep brought the entire family down or bankrupt. I have faced many traumas in life, war, cancer, death, lost love and by far having a dysfunctional family member, or members, ranks number one as it is long lasting and hard to measure or manage. Good luck to all of you!

  6. Cynthia March 27, 2016 at 6:20 AM

    What do you do with family members that continue to do the same crazy actions thats gets them crazy in the first place. I have two nieces that live the highlife. burn both ends of the candle. They don’t learn from their mistakes. They keep on making the same mistakes over and over again. When they hit bottom the only time they contact you. they expect you to come running to the sister and I are at our wits in. My sister gets them back on track and before you know it they’re back to their old lifestyle. The cycle repeats. I can’t allow this type of crazy in my life or my kids. My sister and I are there aunts. Their mother is Mia from our lives thank cause she is the crazy tree were these two came from.

    • John Patterson March 29, 2016 at 11:56 AM

      While this won’t come as much solace, I have found that people change only when they want to. Not that interventions and such can’t help to jumpstart that desire for change, but the desire ultimately needs to come from deep within. As far as the cycle of needing your help when they hit rock bottom, that’s when boundaries come into play. Recall that boundaries are simply rules set ahead of time. As such, you need to create a rule for what you will do the next time they come asking for assistance from you or another family member. Will you provide that assistance without any strings attached? The boundaries you create in those scenarios are what will ultimately set the tone for their (possible) recovery in the future – but remember as well, you are not responsible for their actions, only your own.

  7. Jenny July 1, 2016 at 11:10 AM

    My in laws are also hard to tolerate. It sucks because my husband and his family are Hispanic and so in their culture, they like to be together a lot! And ever since I started dating my husband before we got married (which was almost 2 years), i had to be around his family more than I cared to and then when we got married we had to live with his parents and his mom is loud and obnoxious and seems to always be mad and yelling about something, so I got tired of living there quick and then when we finally got a place of our own, his parents had to move out of the house they were renting and so they moved in with us and I was pregnant during this time and so my hormones weren’t helping me emotionally. But I felt like I had to get away from them, so I told my husband to transfer to his job’s location in FL where my family lives and so he did and we lived in FL for only 1 year before my husband decided to move us back to Utah where we lived before with his family and so when we moved back to Utah, we lived with his parents and I started feeling depressed again and I demanded to get our own place and to have some boundaries. And so here I am living in an apartment and it’s been better than living with his family for sure but things have gotten to the point that I dread ever seeing them. I really am sick of seeing them and being around them. I was really happy living in FL, I just hope that someday we can move away from his family again. 😕

  8. Kathy September 25, 2016 at 11:48 PM

    My daughter is withdrawn, argumentative, not eating well, sleeping irregularly, not seeking a job, and impossible to live happily with. Although she is in her 30’s she is not taking adult actions like searching for a job, making new friends, learning to cook, etc. I took her in after she lost her job, and it is almost half a year later now. The antagonism is affecting me, I can barely hold a civil conversation now, and all yelling is my fault, although it really isn’t. She hasn’t seen a doctor, and doesn’t seem to start anything to help herself out other than staying in her room 22 or 23 hours a day. I long for peace and happiness again. Not sure how to get her to get help.

  9. JMB November 27, 2016 at 5:45 PM

    I had a really good relationship with my sister in law for many years. About 7 years ago she began having a lot of conflict in her life and that turned towards me. I have made several attempts over recent years to resolve the issues she continuously has with me. What I have come to realize is she lies and manipulates everyone in her family but no one steps up and calls her out. This issue has now reached its boiling point with me. She has recently created a lie so people in her family will feel sorry for her. I can’t continue to pretend that her behavior goes unseen. Any suggestions on how to approach this situation?

    • John Patterson November 28, 2016 at 7:03 PM

      Hi JMB, thank you for your comment, and I feel the pain surrounding your situation with your sister. For some brief help, I would suggest you remember that ultimately you have to make healthy choices and decisions for yourself, regardless of how others react to them. I would suggest you read my blog posts on boundaries, and remember that boundaries are mostly made in a vacuum – that is, made with your mental health in mind, and not others. The exception: people in whom you RESPECT should be “considered” when making any such boundary, but again, it ultimately comes down to what you want (and need). That said, if your sister is manipulating you, and not willing to reconcile with you, I’m sure you know inside that you cannot continue to be around someone who is poisoning your life. This is only made more painful in the sense that the rest of the family may be “ganging up on you” or on your sister’s side, but that might only prove how good a manipulator your sister is, and not that your side isn’t valid. Stay true to who you are, not what your family thinks of you!

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