6 Family Behaviors That Are Totally Dysfunctional

How to spot them and deal with them productively

(This article appeared previously on Grandparents.com.)

Dysfunctional behavior can be easy to slip into for even the most well-functioning families. While the temptation to avoid these issues can be strong, addressing them head on can actually strengthen your family ties.

Whether you are a mere observer, or involved in the quirks yourself, here are tips to identify and tackle six common dysfunctional family behaviors:

Dysfunction No. 1: Demanding, or dividing, time disproportionately  If you're, say, a grandparent, in an ideal world you'd see your grandchildren every weekend (after all: you are the favorite!). Problem is, the other set of grandparents — also self-proclaimed favorites — feel the same way.

"There starts the arguments of fairness in relationships," says psychotherapist Martin Novell, based in Los Angeles.

Solution: Open conversation with the other parties vying for visitation is key to reaching a compromise without forcing stress on your children.

Communicate your priorities in time-sharing — such as preferring holiday time over more frequent visits — and listen to theirs.

“That will alleviate a lot of guilt and stop a lot of fighting,” says Novell. Adds Jennifer Watanabe, a veteran parenting educator at Bellevue College in Bellevue, Wash.: “I would encourage the parents to work with the grandparents on coming up with a year-long calendar.”

Dysfunction No. 2: Baiting for reactions  What is it with that family member who seems to be on a constant mission to get a rise out of you? Baiting, or deliberately soliciting an angry or emotional response, more often than not has very little to do with the topic at hand, and maybe even nothing to do with you.

Instead, it is typically a reflection of internal negativity that the instigator has yet to process rationally, or an attempt to deflect attention from an issue they are not yet ready to deal with.

Solution: When dealing with a family member in a baiting situation, your options are limited to fight or flight. Recognize that there is nothing to be gained from using logic in an irrationally provoked argument. Instead, retreat and save reasoning for later.

"Emotions will run high," says Watanabe. "If people can have calm interactions, they are more likely to say things that are less hurtful long-term."

Once the heated moment has cooled down, approach the antagonizer to defend yourself and to find out what is actually on his or her mind.

Dysfunction No. 3: Fighting dirty  Some family members always seem to be in the boxing ring. There is room for disagreements within families, but only if everyone learns to fight fairly.

"Make your point and keep it simple," says Novell. Becoming abusive, immature or obstinate during a disagreement eliminates the chances of the fight resulting in a productive outcome.

Solution: Keep the focus on understanding the other person’s issues and perspective instead of on “winning” the battle. For fights you're not directly involved in, avoid donning the black and white-striped shirt to referee family members and instead communicate how to fight fair from a place of experience. “Tell your children to give their partners a chance to express, and slow down, so it’s easier to repair a fight,” says Novell.

Another tip: It's best to keep an argument between blood relatives, instead of involving in-laws in the communication, whenever possible.

If you're upset that your daughter and her husband have arrived late to the past several family gatherings, bring it up with her — even if you have a sneaking suspicion the root of the problem is your son-in-law. “Often times, a family will overlook if a blood relative has said something hurtful, but the reality is, with non-blood relatives, bad feelings are more likely to simmer,” says Novell.

(MORE: A Final Flight for a Daughter and Her Irrepressible Mother)

Dysfunction No. 4: Dependency-driven resentment  Having cared for your children when they were young, you may hold the expectation that they, too, will care for you when you need it. Be wary of relying on your children to take you in, however, without fully hashing out details and any lingering issues or arguments between all parties involved.

Even disagreements from the past you believe have blown over may come to the forefront with the topic of co-habitation — along with resentment and other emotions you may not even be aware of. “[Grandparents] may be taken by surprise at how their children feel toward them,” says Novell.

Solution: Early communication about long-term care is key, but even moreso is long-term financial planning. “It’s important in terms of grandparent survival and grandparent well-being that they always remain somewhat financially independent of their children,” says Novell. In doing so, “they don’t have to be subservient to their children if that bitterness surprises them.”

Dysfunction No. 5: Relative strangers  For grandparents, distance, limited time, family conflict, and any number of other factors may be obstacles in developing strong relationships with granchildren. Despite an increased effort to bond, your grandchild may treat you as a bit of an outsider. “It’s not rejection, but it’s a different developmental aspect of the child getting to know that grandparent,” says Novell.

Solution: Focus on listening and getting to know the child, instead of talking about yourself and your beliefs. “If you start with your own story, you’re giving values that the grandchild hasn’t even heard about, much less understands,” says Novell.

After taking the time to listen, approach this new relationship not from a position of authority, but instead as a two-way conversation. Small tokens of affection, such as candy or a small toy, can be helpful too, says Watanabe. “It’s something to share together, and it’s just a fun association.”

(MORE: 10 Things You Should Never Say to Grandkids)

Dysfunction No. 6: Overstepping boundaries  Your children turned out just fine, yet their approach to parenting could not be more different from yours. Despite your best intentions, instilling ideas, values, and rules (or lack thereof) on your grandchildren that contradict what they learn at home compromises their parents’ authority.

Solution: Remember, the child’s parents decide the rules and regulations of the home, including how their child will be raised. Talk to both parents as a unit about your concerns or ideas, but yield to their final decisions.

“If you disagree, that’s fine, but [grandparents] are not supposed to voice that disagreement in front of the children, or act in such a way,” says Novell.

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