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.

Avoid Power Struggles
Let your family member retain as much control and independence as he or she can handle. Too often, well-intentioned family caregivers rush in and take over for a relative who is aging, ailing, or disabled. But if you stop and consider how you would feel if someone prematurely took away your independence or control over your daily routines, you would probably feel resentful or rebellious against that person.

Instead, sit down with your family member and have a brainstorming session where you discuss:

  • "What are the things you want me to handle for you?"
  • "What are the things you absolutely want to keep doing for yourself without any interference from me?"
  • "What are the things for which you want a little assistance but you still want to make sure you're in charge?"
  • Having a heart-to-heart talk like this can reduce or eliminate many of the power struggles and personality clashes that flare up in most family caregiving situations.

    Try to Share the Load
    The best caregivers are those who know their own limits and who are resourceful in asking for help from trained experts or in delegating tasks to others who can lighten your load to help you prevent burnout. For example, is there another relative who can take care of some of the tasks you don't enjoy, such as phone calls to insurance companies, filling out reimbursement paperwork, running errands to pick up prescriptions or medical records, or arranging for a visiting nurse or aide to give you the day off sometimes?

    It's normal to feel a little guilty or frustrated that you can't do every caregiving task exactly the way you want it done. But the more you respect your own limits and recognize that you have others to care for and a life of your own, the quicker you will learn that your role is to supervise a team of helpers rather than trying to do it all on your own and getting exhausted or short-tempered as a result.

    Connect With Your Relative's Soul
    Instead of dwelling on your family member's difficult personality or problem behaviors, take some quiet time each day or each week to notice and enjoy the precious soul or childlike vulnerability that often is hidden underneath the layers of this individual's personality and old habits.

    For instance, if during a hospital visit or home visit you can bring along a relaxing piece of music that your relative loves and that you can listen to together, you might achieve a soulful moment of connection and closeness with this frequently resistant person. Or if you can look into this troubled relative's eyes or notice the strength and character in his or her hands, those moments will probably be far more soul-satisfying than battling his or her difficult attitudes and behaviors.

    In over 20 years of counseling people on how to deal with difficult relatives, I've always been amazed at how, underneath the personality clashes and power struggles, there is so much love and desire for connection and acceptance. Being connected to an aging, ailing, or otherwise difficult relative can either be a chance to keep repeating our battles-or to find soulful moments of connection that make it all worthwhile.

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