The Truth of Family Dynamics: How to Confront Difficult Family Members

Donovan had minimal contact with his father, Joseph. As a young man he’d had some serious fights with his dad, over everything from money to his character. Now in his 60’s, Donovan came to me to work on a plan to re-connect with his dad, and heal their relationship. Together we worked on Donovan reaching out to other family members and learn what had been going on in Joseph’s life. It turned out that Joseph was living in his home with a couple who managed his health, assets, and life. We discussed options for initial contact—have a family member tell Joseph that Donovan wanted to reconcile, call, write a letter, send an email—however Donovan decided he needed to go to his father’s home and reach out in person. When Donovan arrived he was met by the couple, who told Donovan that Joseph had no interest in seeing him. Donovan attempted visiting a few more times and calling, but each time they stopped him. Donovan finally discussed the situation with a local social worker, concerned about his father’s welfare. Soon after that Donovan’s phone rang, and to his surprise it was his father. Joseph was irate and told Donovan he was safe, healthy and happy, and he never wanted to hear from or see him again.

Bonnie’s elderly mother lived with her brother in a neighboring town. Bonnie’s brother was in charge of their mother’s finances, living situation, medical appointments, and activities. During one of Bonnie’s regular visits with her mother she became concerned. It turned out Bonnie’s brother was taking money out of their mother’s checking account monthly to “cover expenses” and “pay for the grandchildren’s college funds.” Bonnie’s mother had no idea how much money she had, how much her son was taking, or how much her monthly expenses even were. With some planning and preparation, Bonnie reached out to her other siblings and together they confronted their brother. Immediately he angrily listed off all the things he’d done for their mother, and everything he’d “given up” to take care of her. “She owes me,” he screamed, “and she owes me a lot more than this.”

Family dynamics, which are molded and formed over decades and generations, can be complicated, painful and difficult. Sometimes we are able to create a situation where healing and growth occur. After confronting her brother, Bonnie and her siblings rallied around their mother and brother, providing resources and support. Her brother entered counseling, the family hired a financial advisor to sort through their mother’s finances, and Bonnie began to work with her brother to take care of their mother. Other times, the best (or only) option is to let go and grieve the loss. Joseph’s final rejection of Donovan was devastating, however in counseling he was able to work through the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), and eventually forgive his father. In your family, where do you need to confront, and where do you need to let go?