Helping a Hard-to-Help Relative

How to 'do' for a difficult loved one while protecting yourself from frustration and burnout

BY: Dr. Leonard Felder


Millons of women and men who have an aging, ailing, or disabled family member are faced each day with the challenge of trying to help this person in the midst of your other responsibilities and busy schedule. Over 50 percent of family caregivers have to deal with a family member's uncooperative personality or stubborn resistance to being helped.

Whether you are trying to assist an aging parent, a mentally ill sibling or child, an addicted family member, or just trying to get your spouse or your grown child to go see a health practitioner, the personality clashes and power struggles can be extremely frustrating. It might be a family member who is in denial about his or her condition. Or someone who just won't do what the doctor or healer has suggested. Or a relative who bombards you with complaints and demands, but then is unwilling to follow through on any suggestions or arrangements you try to offer.

I recommend a number of specific techniques so that you can come through effectively for your troubled loved ones and not become burned out because of this person's repeated attempts to ignore or sabotage your assistance. Here are a few of the coping strategies:

Remember the Wisdom of the Flight Attendant

At the beginning of every airline flight, the flight attendant says, "Be sure to put the oxygen mask over your own face before trying to help the person next to you."

That may seem strange at first. Caring and compassionate individuals would probably feel guilty thinking about their own needs when the ailing or dependent person next to them is in crisis. But think about it for a moment-if you forget to breathe, relax, replenish, oxygenate your brain, and do self-nurturing things, you will quickly burn out and become impatient, resentful, or short-tempered toward the complicated person you are trying to help. In the truest sense, it's not selfish but essential that you address your own physical and emotional needs before trying to help someone else. In most cases, this can allow you to be a more thoughtful, calm and resilient caregiver, especially when you're dealing with a stubborn or agitated individual.

Prior to each phone call or visit with a feisty or difficult relative who sometimes resists your help, take a few minutes to meditate, pray, walk in nature, read an inspiring few pages of a book, or write in a journal. Those moments of centering and renewal are crucial if you want to be at your best with a troubled individual who frequently or occasionally pushes your buttons.

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