6 Ways CNAs Can Deal with a Patient’s Challenging Family Member

Melissa Mills
August 25, 2022
min read time

Table of Contents

Share this article

You’ve been caring for Mr. Jones for two years. In that time, you’ve met several of his friends from church and one son who lives locally. You know he has two daughters who don’t live close, but you haven’t met them. Then, you arrive at work one day to find he’s experienced a stroke, and his daughters have come to be by his side. The minute you walk into the room, they start grilling you about who you are and tell you everything you’re doing is not how Mr. Jones likes it, even though it’s how you’ve been caring for him for years. 

Family members can make your job easier or harder. Unfortunately, your nursing assistant training program probably didn’t teach you how to deal with difficult family members. So, you’ll have to learn this skill as you go. You might meet people who are rude, condescending, or pose a variety of other challenges you’ll have to navigate. And, of course, you’ll need to figure out how to make the best of your relationship with these family members because they are a vital part of the resident’s support system. 

But how? Here are the best ways to get on the same page with challenging family members. 

Put Yourself in Their Shoes

Imagine how you might feel if you were Mr. Jones’ daughters. They may be dealing with guilty about not living closer and not being more involved with their dad’s care. They may also feel scared, helpless, and hopeless about the situation. The stress of these emotions can get the best of some people. A few of their fears might include:

  • Uncertainty about future care - Wondering how much care a loved one will need in the future is stressful. Worries include levels of care, where they can receive it, and how much they can be involved. 
  • Not knowing what’s happening - Family members may worry if their loved one will die soon or never fully recover. Stress about the future can be overwhelming and frustrating. 
  • Uncertainty about finances - Healthcare isn’t cheap, especially when it’s around the clock for months or even years. In addition, insurance doesn’t cover all of the costs associated with healthcare expenses, causing family members to worry about who will pay for the care their loved one needs.

Now that you know what they might be feeling, how can you help? Empathy, or putting yourself in their shoes, allows you to imagine what they might be feeling. For example, you can practice empathy by thinking about a time when you had a sick family member who had to stay or live in a healthcare facility. Thinking about being in the same or similar situation will help you understand them better.

Be Kind to Everyone

Treat all family members with compassion and kindness, even if they don’t reciprocate. Going out of your way to be nice can go a long way in changing how family members will react to you. A few easy things you can try include:

  •  Offering additional seating if many family members visit at one time
  •  Asking the dietary department to bring a tray of drinks and snacks for out-of-town visitors 
  • Providing recommendations for local restaurants, hotels, and other things they might need while visiting 

Ask for Their Input

Family members can provide invaluable information about the resident even if they aren’t involved in daily care. They have years of experience and history you can learn from. They can give tips about foods they like or don’t like, how they want to dress, and more. Family might also help with care tasks like assisting with toileting or eating while they are present. 

Find Out if They Have Questions

While you might not be able to answer many of their questions, you can point them in the right direction. Taking the time to ask if they have questions can help them feel heard and valued as part of the care team. Just be honest and upfront that you might not know all the answers, but you’ll be glad to connect them with the right team member. A few questions you can use to start the conversation might be:

  • Can you tell me what’s upsetting you?
  • What concerns do you have about your loved one’s care?
  • What can I do right now to help?

Actively Listen to Them

Many times people just need to feel heard. You don’t have to offer solutions, but listen to how they’re feeling and what types of concerns they have. Active listening is a powerful way to validate their feelings, reduce frustrations, and calm their fears. Try these simple strategies for active listening:

  • Maintain eye contact and stay focused on the conversation
  • Don’t interrupt or argue
  • Listen without judgment or jumping to conclusions
  • Listen to understand, not to respond
  • Summarize what you heard to check with them that you understand

Set Boundaries

Sometimes you won’t be able to meet eye-to-eye with some family members. In these situations, you’ll need to set boundaries. Proactively talk to your supervisor before the situation escalates. They can help you navigate the challenge and create a solution that keeps the patient at the center of care.

If you’re involved in a situation where a family member is yelling, using profanity, or appears angry, use one of these statements to handle it:

  • I don’t like the way you are speaking to me. Can you take a deep breath, and then we can sit down and talk about how you feel?
  • Cursing (or yelling) at me is inappropriate and needs to stop. How about you come with me to find the nurse so we can all sit together and discuss your concerns? 
  • I feel disrespected when you yell (or curse) at me. I’m willing to listen as long as we can show respect for each other. 

You’re Ready to Handle Challenging Family Members

It’s hard to come up with every scenario you might encounter when dealing with difficult family members. However, this list of ways will help you get started. 

Read our CNA Blog