Dealing with family chaos

When a band-aid isn't enough to fix the situation.
When a band-aid isn't enough to fix the situation. Photo: Getty

Do you have a complex family system that seems like utter chaos? A good sense of humour and reasonable coping skills can help.

While we all envy those families that consist of mum and dad, a few kids, supportive aunts and uncles, and storybook-type grandparents in the clan, most families are more diverse.

"We have three generations living under one roof," says a friend of ours we'll call Kathy. "My father has the beginning stages of dementia, my teenager is pregnant, and I just found out I'm losing my job!"

Many families are being stretched to the max, and just keeping up one day at a time is getting tougher.

"Pondering decisions such as whether to put my dad in a nursing home or lock up my teenager for good keeps me awake all night!" Kathy wailed to us.

Kathy isn't alone. Most of us can name families that have equally stressful problems going on. Coping with reasonably good skills, instead of hoping some miracles will come along, is critical.

If you have family chaos unfolding, try these strategies:

Face all the facts you don't want to face. For example, if your dad does have the beginning stages of dementia, look for resources immediately. Find one or two people qualified to give you advice on what to do if things get worse.

Use everyone's talents and skills. If your teenager is pregnant, ask her to help with specific chores. Don't alienate your daughter. Instead, ask her to do what she can in terms of cooking, shopping or driving older family members to their doctors' appointments.


Simplify as many tasks as you can. Don't try to keep a perfect house or cook perfect meals. Strive for "good enough" so that every day isn't overwhelmingly stressful.

Solve money issues by making a strict plan. If someone is losing his or her job, figure out the strategies for closing the gap as soon as possible. You might have to give up cable TV or work a few additional hours each week to increase at least one paycheck.

We advised our friend, Kathy, who is losing her job, to iron out her financial picture within the next two weeks. She needs to write a resume, figure out how many hours a day she can work on a job search, and use an aggressive approach to fixing her problem.

While none of us has the energy to live in a hyperactive state, we all need to stay vigilant to fixing monster problems that threaten to grow bigger.

"My 21-year-old pregnant daughter and her boyfriend showed up on my doorstep recently," says a doctor friend of ours we'll call Paul. "So that I didn't kill anyone right off the bat, I asked the couple to come on in and sit down. For reasons I won't get into, I put the new 'couple' in our downstairs master suite."

Paul told us, "As crazy as this sounds, the boyfriend has turned out to be a fantastic person. He's been helping me around the house, and he's driving my elderly father-in-law to the grocery store."

Paul does worry that the whole scenario with his pregnant daughter will affect his three younger children who live in his home. "But," says Paul, "I think my kids will be more positively affected by how I address the situation. Life does throw curve balls, so you have to manage in the sanest way you can."

Judi Light Hopson is the Executive Director of the stress management website USA Wellness Cafe at . Emma Hopson is an author and a nurse educator. Ted Hagen is a family psychologist.