Dealing with difficult family behaviour

Families can be magnifiers of self-interest. Sometimes, in order not to be complicit with abuse, you need to behave like a stranger until equanimity is restored. Photo by Rhone on Unsplash

Why should dealing with family stuff be so difficult?  What is it about family issues that seems so pronounced compared with other issues?


Think of a world in which nobody had a sense of their own position.  You would walk around the streets, and give equal attention to everyone and everything.  Your attention would no more be arrested by a beautiful (to you) person than an unattractive (to you) person.  You would have equanimity – the ability to keep an even mind in every situation.  Why shouldn’t you?

Now think of a world in which everybody is obsessed with preserving their own position.  You would walk around the streets, and give preferential attention to those who can serve you, make you happy.  Your attention would mostly be arrested by those things and people relevant to your own immediate needs.  You would have prejudice – the inability to keep an even mind in every situation.  You would be trapped in a world of your own making, in which your obsession with managing things, with bringing things you like close to you, and shifting things you don’t like away from you, gets the better of you.


Welcome to the world of the family, which often has more affinity with the second example above than the first.  If you were able, in your family, to keep an even mind, and give equal attention everywhere, then families would not be problematic.  But the fact is, many people become obsessed with maintaining their own position in a family, or at least their perceived position, so that their ability to be even-handed goes away.

Families become like this because humans are (partly) biologically geared to manipulate for resources. At an early age, some children learn to manage situations so that their resources are secure.  Their parents may teach them to behave in certain ways if they want to keep control of their resources (that’s how confiscation works as a control mechanism!).

More subtle children will learn that certain behaviours maximise parental attention – so when they want that attention, they will maximise that behaviour.  For example, if a child learns that having a fit of temper maximises attention, and changes an unwanted situation, then that’s what they will do when they face unwanted situations.  It’s more complicated than that (there are many ways to crack the ‘attention-gaining’ and ‘resource-gaining’ nuts), but that’s about the sum of it.


In families, it is often the case that a a small number of people (the children) are placed in a position where they are dependent on a single resource (the carer network, often a couple of parents) for resources.

Given our biological inheritance, it’s not that surprising that a complex web of behaviours arises in dealing with those competing claims.  Sometimes one child will simply hit the other in order to bring them down.  An amazingly blunt tool, but it kind of works.  The only problem is, if the parent(s) work out this is happening, then, if they want to, they can punish the hitting child for acting in that way.  A skilful child will then find quieter ways of ‘hitting’ their sibling.  It might be setting them up for blame; it might be slowly teasing them and putting them down, so that they cease to have influence.  It becomes a game of politics.


There are two antidotes to all this, depending on what the situation demands.

  1. Walk away.  Some children realise that walking away from the whole family setup is the only way to achieve peace of mind.  This will be true, for instance, where they become wrapped into a competition they did not ask for.  Perhaps they are being bullied by their siblings, and there is no end in sight.  Perhaps they are witnessing family abuse of other relatives, and can see nothing that they personally can do to end the situation.  The only answer becomes to leave, and not to look back.
  2. The second alternative is to stay, but lose self-cherishing.  It is incredibly difficult to do this – one of the reasons why monastic communities tend to ask people to leave their family setups!  It involves behaving towards family members with equanimity – in other words, as though family members were just ordinary human beings, no different from those outside the family.


If you choose to stay with a difficult family situation, then you are asking to participate in a potentially time-consuming quest.  Your aim will be to treat your family as though they were just anyone.  It sounds weird, doesn’t it?  Isn’t it heartless to treat family as though they were just like everyone else?

But this is what is necessary, and let me explain why.  Difficult family members (or rather difficult behaviour) is perpetuated within families on the presumption that the family is a unique world.  ‘Look,’ the abuser says, ‘we are tied together by a secret bond, a bond no one else understands.  Normal rules don’t apply.  We can do what we want and get away with it.  No one else truly understands.’

To survive in such situations, (pardon my language coming up,) you have to call bullshit on the behaviour.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to measure every situation by the social norms and laws surrounding the family, and not by the individual or family’s peculiarities.  Thus, when a family member makes a wild accusation, then choose to behave in exactly the same way as you would if a stranger did it.  If you would normally tell the person that they are wrong, and that if they keep on making it then it will make it hard for you to continue to associate with them so much… then that’s how you should behave to the family member.


The reason we don’t do that, and therefore let abusers get away with ther behaviour, is sometimes guilt.  We feel that, if we hold others accountable for their behaviour, and protect ourselves, then we are letting the side down, leaving the abuser to fend for themselves.  After all, they’re family, right?

But this is where we have to be cruel to be kind.  The abusive behaviour thrives on the misconception that it will be tolerated in this exceptional environment.  If you notice, the abuse stops when someone else phones the house, when there is a meeting, or when you are all out and about.  The whole thing depends on isolation.

By calling bullshit, and treating the person as though you were in a stranger situation, not a family one, you are teaching them not to use and abuse.  It’s kinder, because they can improve their behaviour, and therefore stop creating bad situations for and around themselves.



If self-interest didn’t exist, then difficult situations and behaviour wouldn’t exist.  Famillies are great magnifiers of self-interest.  In particular, siblings learn strange tactics to fight for parental resources.  If you find this is happening, one answer is to walk away.  But another answer (though more time-consuming) is to treat the family situation as though it were outside the family.  Position yourself as a stranger while any abusive behaviour persists.  You are being cruel to be kind.

The abuser is relying on secrecy and privacy.  By opening the situation up, being public about it, and being clear it is unacceptable (and what the consequences are), you will do two things.  First, you will protect yourself, so you can be free to stay effective and help others.  And secondly, you are attempting to protect the other from the consequences of their behaviour, and give them a chance to learn to create good situations, not bad ones.

In short, in difficult family situations, change your behaviour to stranger-behaviour, unless and until the abuser treats you with respect.