3 Things to Do When a Family Member Won’t Change Their Toxic Behavior
Scrolling through therapists’ advice on Instagram is probably one of my healthier social media habits. These insightful tidbits are definitely not a replacement for a one-on-one session with a licensed mental health professional, but I often find they help me consider new ways of handling family conflicts, parenting dilemmas, and other tough situations. One account I turn to regularly is run by therapist and author Nedra Glover Tawwab, LCSW, whose popular posts are known for dishing out straightforward, practical advice on setting boundaries in relationships. A common theme in Tawwab’s “Nedra Nuggets” of wisdom: Dealing with loved ones who keep repeating harmful behavior patterns.
No matter the issue at hand—poor communication skills, out-of-control anger, a lack of accountability for their actions—if you’ve struggled to deal with a family member who’s stuck in their ways, you know how emotionally draining the relationship can be. In her new book, Drama Free: A Guide to Managing Unhealthy Family Relationships, Tawwab defines change as “practicing new habits and traditions while building healthy support systems,” which can be a big challenge for anyone, especially when it comes to patterns that have been ingrained for decades.
Ultimately, the person in your life can only evolve if they’re willing and able to—but that doesn’t mean you’re stuck. It’s possible to relieve some of the tension in the relationship by focusing on yourself. Tawwab offers three things you can change when a family member won’t:
Understand that you can’t force your loved one to change.
We often have a sincere desire for another person to change without understanding that most of us don’t revamp our lives out of nowhere, according to Tawwab: “Change typically comes from a huge significant life event, such as having kids, someone dying, or losing a job,” she says. “It’s not, ‘I was walking down the street and I decided I wanna stop gaslighting you.’”
Reminding yourself that what your family member does (or doesn’t) do is largely out of your control can be a helpful first step in diminishing your distress, Tawwab says. For example, maybe your parent spends their money in ways you don’t approve of and then asks you to loan them some cash to cover their bills, which makes you extremely frustrated that they won’t set and stick to a budget. Or perhaps your sibling always shuts down in the face of conflict, and you’re left wishing they’d learn how to communicate better. Regardless of the particular pattern you wish your loved one would break, telling yourself statements like, “Old habits are familiar,” and “Doing something different isn’t as easy as it seems,” can help you reframe the situation and start to release your expectations of the other person, which can be incredibly freeing, says Tawwab.
Have direct, honest conversations with them (as scary as that might sound).
Just because you realize you can’t change someone, doesn’t mean you can’t speak up about your needs and protect your well-being. But directly addressing difficult issues and setting boundaries with family members can be intimidating. It can be easy to tell yourself you’ll wait until they do something really egregious, or to think they’ll never change (so why even bother?), but that does both of you a disservice. A much more effective strategy: “Respond to things as they happen or soon after. We might wait until we have 20 examples of something to recognize and address it. But if someone has done something three times, it’s a pattern,” says Tawwab.
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