How To Cope With Family Drama Without Falling Apart

Coping with Family DramaBelieve it or not, you most often you really can cope with family drama without falling apart. And even more than that, you can turn conflict into a productive conversation that results in the family effectively dealing with the issues at hand. Really! It’s not magic! If you are dealing with a toxic family member, no worries. You can still find a way to set healthy boundaries to deal with toxicity. 

If you are the toxic family member then pay attention to how you might be negatively affecting your family and what you can do to move forward in a productive and healthy manner.

What Do Basic Family Dynamics Look Like With Family Drama?

Most of the time relationships are fairly healthy. What usually occurs, however, are life situations that create tension, fear of the unknown and a lack of skills needed that were never taught. So we learn how to communicate through our parents and their parents and each generation before.

Sometimes we try to do something different than what we grew up with. Sometimes that works and other times it doesn’t. Normal family dynamics might involve some yelling, and punitive measures imposed. However, this should never come from a desire to belittle, demean or bully the other family member.

Often situations come up that are really about life events that can be challenging. For example, a family member is fired. This can be a scary time in the family. Try to keep the discussion about a solution in that moment. If it is something that must be further dealt with, for example, a pattern a family member seems to have, then plan to discuss that further when the current situation is managed and there is a plan of action.

What’s most important is to keep the communication going. This means trying not to sound critical, judging, or angry to the point that the person shuts down or leaves the room. You want to continue to talk it through together.

This presents challenges, but sometimes it helps when you can think ahead of time what the most important points are that you want to discuss. Think about the final outcome, realistically, that you hope to achieve to the best of your ability. Remember, the outcome also depends upon the other people involved. 

The other most important point is to fully hear each other out. It doesn’t mean you are going to be in agreement with one another. Feeling heard is really important. This allows each family member to leave the discussion with the willingness to continue to think about what the other is saying, and to pick up the discussion at a later time. 

This method encourages each person to think about the view of the other person. This is easier to do when the other person is not present. That way we tend to feel less pressure to respond out of emotions such as defensiveness. 

Emotions are important in terms of understanding how and why we feel a certain way. But our thoughts need to be communicated in order to get to the resolution of a problem.

Let’s discuss challenging family members and how to deal with this.

Dealing With Difficult or Toxic Family Members

Dealing with family drama is challenging for most people. We don’t get to choose who is in our family, right? It also doesn’t mean that we have to be around difficult people just because we are related. However, there is a really good middle ground where we can use some effective tools to deal with difficult situations, conversations and family members without throwing out the entire relationship.

There may also be some pretty toxic relationships that are unhealthy to be around and will likely not improve over time. But clearly, most often, there is a way to cope with family drama or situations where contact is possible without feeling like you are drowning. It often involves having a definite purpose for the discussion, desired result, and may involve setting boundaries.

Remember, communication skills and family dynamics are not taught in school. So how is one to know how to navigate successfully? Fortunately, skills can be learned and utilized. Even when the other person is not going to cooperate with you. 

Yes, even then. This doesn’t mean it will be a perfect ending. However, the worst-case scenario is that at least you will be able to make your peace with things in the relationship that are not within your control.

What if a Family Member Won’t Participate?

If it involves a teenager, then as parents, you have some weight to utilize. There can be consequences if the teenager refuses to meet with you as the parents. Remember you have the final decision in terms of the discussion at hand.

If the family member is an adult child, then either way, whether it is the parent who will not participate or the adult child, there are still choices. For example, you can write a letter to the person and without judging or criticizing, describe how you feel and what you hope can happen as a positive outcome in a discussion.

Sometimes this works because when it is in a letter, each person may feel less vulnerable in the moment. Here again, it is vital to stay away from name-calling, judging and threats made. Try to state or demonstrate that you value the relationship (according to what is true for you).

Dealing With Family Drama When it Involves a Teenager

There are some truly difficult challenges in this picture. One is that the teen does not have the brain fully developed until 23-25 years of age. This is not to demean them, but it means that they don’t know what they don’t know and that their brain is still developing into early adulthood. This is challenging for the parent and the teen.

Another challenge is dealing with family drama when the teen wants to move forward towards independence but has the little life experience to draw upon in terms of his judgment in making choices. So parents need to remember that the teen feels fear inside about the unknown and how unprepared he is. They are not likely to admit this, which is normal.

However, this is exactly what the parent should not say. Instead,  talk about how you felt as a teenager dealing with the unknown. The teen will hear this, whether he admits it or not, and will think about this after the conversation because it will make him feel more normal. He likely won’t tell you this, but just trust that he is thinking about this.

As parents, try to hear your teen and make sure you are understanding him accurately, just as you want to be understood. Help him understand that privileges come with responsibility and that his behavior will show how much responsibility he can handle in terms of privileges.

Also, if both parents are involved and available to participate, then it is helpful if you both can discuss the important points and final outcome of the discussion with the teen that is desired.

Dealing With In-laws and Family Drama

This is challenging because we are often protective of our parents and don’t want to create distance between the spouse and the in-laws. You don’t want you or your spouse to have to choose sides.  

I think it is important to discuss your feelings with your spouse first so they know where you are coming from. It’s important for you and your mate to be together on the goals involving a particular situation. It’s important you both understand each other. Try to compromise as much as possible, so that both are in agreement regarding the desired outcome of a discussion with the parents.

Coming From an Emotionally or Physically Abusive Family

Even though you are an adult, your childhood is a part of you. When the family was emotionally or physically abusive (or both) those childhood memories remain. What is different, and very important to understand is that “child” within you remains inside, even though you are now an adult. 

This means it is essential that you separate the “child within you” from the adult inside. You have an amazing opportunity to break the pattern of abuse with your own family. But to do this, you must be willing to learn and practice healthy ways of dealing with difficult situations. 

If this is too difficult to do alone, don’t be afraid to see a psychotherapist who can help you heal from the past, but also can teach you the necessary skills to use with your family.

Summary of Skills to Utilize in Dealing With Challenging Family Dynamics

  • Think about what is most important to you as an end result of the conversation.
  • Talk it out with your mate prior to having the family discussion to make sure you are on the same page.
  • If someone has strong emotions over the subject, it’s fine to write a letter rather than a formal discussion. Then everyone can come together to discuss a solution.
  • Try to stay away from blame or right or wrong positions and instead focus on solutions when dealing with family drama.
  • When it involves a teenager, it is even more important for him to feel heard and understood. 
  • As with all discussions, try to hear and understand both sides of the issues involved.
  • As best as possible, create an outcome that is acceptable to both sides.
  • When it is needed, take a break and come back later to allow people to think about what they want before revisiting the topic.


Having heated topics to discuss with family members is tricky. How you go about dealing with family drama determines the outcome in most cases. Work together whenever possible. Stay with the desired outcome rather than focusing on blame. Sometimes you may need to take the higher road to keep the peace.

For Further Reading:

5 Strategies For Dealing With Family Drama by Jeanne Croteau

3 Steps to Avoid Family Drama and Set Healthy Boundaries  by Marie Forleo 

How to Deal With a Toxic Family Member  by Nicole Pajer


About Susan Saint-Welch

Susan Saint-Welch LMFT has counseled couples and individuals for many years on issues such as dating, marriage, family drama, coping with difficult times, improving self-image and living the life you love. She provides psychotherapy for clients in California and Dating, Couples and Life Coaching for clients outside California through secure video conferencing. She has published numerous articles regarding these issues on her website, on and on

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