Ways to manage difficult emotions with family


Solutions to improve your family's emotional dynamics include:

  • Listening carefully

  • Discussing feelings

  • Appreciating different ways to help

  • Changing negative patterns

  • Getting help with discussions

Listening carefully

Pay close attention to what family members say and how they say it.

Consider what family members are saying with their:

  • Words

  • Tone of voice

  • Facial expression

  • Body language

Occasionally describe what you hear them saying. For example: "It sounds like you're upset because you wanted to know sooner about that. Is that right?"


Ask to make sure you understand, rather than assume. This helps avoid confusion and shows that you're listening.


Discussing feelings

Take your family's "emotional temperature." Ask yourself:

  • Am I feeling calm and well-rested?

  • Do others seem calm and well-rested?

  • Are we in a space where people will feel comfortable discussing their emotions?

  • Did something happen recently that might trigger negative responses?

When the "emotional temperature" feels right, ask family members how they feel about the older adult's situation.


You might start by briefly sharing your feelings. For example: "I feel relieved but also a little guilty about getting paid help. How do you feel about it?"


Focus on listening. Try to understand others' points of view. Don't jump to conclusions.

Be prepared for family members to share positive and negative emotions.


Assume that everyone means well. If a family member becomes upset, try to understand why.


Ask open-ended questions like: "What do you think caused you to have that reaction?" or "What might make that less stressful for you?"


Make clear that you hear and respect others' feelings. It's okay if you don't feel the same way.


Point out when family members have similar feelings. Knowing that family members all like this or are all worried about that can make decisions easier.


If negative emotions creep into family meetings, try clearing the air first. Ask each person to take a minute to name one thing that they appreciate and another that is bothering them.


Suggest relaxing activities, too, like family dinners or movie nights. Enjoying time together can reduce stress.


Appreciating different ways to help

Ask family members to think about the different ways they and others help the older adult.

Point out that some ways are easy to see and understand, like going grocery shopping or cleaning the home. Other help might not be obvious, like giving advice or emotional support.


Ask family members to discuss:

  • The different ways they help the older adult, including less obvious and occasional help

  • What they see others offering the older adult, including skills, experience, company and support

  • How they balance helping the older adult with other responsibilities, without taking on too much

  • How your family might adjust, if the older adult needed more help

  • What tasks could be shared, including with friends, neighbors or paid help

Let family members know that you appreciate how they help the older adult.


Changing negative patterns

Think about the struggles your family faces around helping the older adult.


Could part of the problem be that family members:

  • Have hurt feelings from other situations?

  • Take on roles, like family scapegoat, boss or peacemaker, in ways that don't help?

  • React based on other experiences that they see as similar?

  • Make assumptions about what's going on?

  • Have expectations of themselves or others that might be unrealistic?

If certain things tend to lead to family conflicts, ask what role you're playing. You can change your own behavior. You can only encourage others to change.


Take advantage of new situations to suggest a different approach.

For example, ask family members about setting "ground rules" for discussions, like:

  • We will take turns speaking.

  • We will listen to and not interrupt each other.

  • We will ask questions and try to understand others.

  • We will share concerns without blaming or attacking others.

  • We can ask to take a break.

Getting help with discussions

If your family is struggling with emotional dynamics, consider getting help. Talk to family members about having a "neutral" person guide family discussions.

Ask family members if they would be open to:

  • A family friend who you trust not to play favorites

  • A religious or community leader

  • A family mediator or counselor

  • A social worker or psychologist who focuses on family dynamics

  • A health, legal or financial professional, if these areas are causing conflict

Before hiring professionals, ask about their credentials, licenses, experience with similar situations, and references from past clients. Ask about the services they offer, the costs and payment options.