It’s normal to want to help family members through difficult and challenging times in their lives. However, family members may be hesitant to accept your help because it hurts to admit that they have a problem. They may minimize the severity of their issue or dismiss it entirely. Here’s what to do to ‘wake up’ a family member in denial…

Why Can’t They See?

Whether it’s refusing to admit a drinking problem, or canceling an overdue medical screening, it’s important to understand where your family member’s denial comes from.

While it may be frustrating for you, it’s important to give each individual the time they need to deal with the reality of their situation. For some people, denial is a coping mechanism and allows them to process startling news at their own pace. Rushing their acceptance of the issue may even interfere with their personal grieving journey, and make them put action off longer.

Calmy State Facts

However, if your relative has been in denial for months or even years, then you are encouraged to help them understand the seriousness of their situation. This is becoming unhealthy denial, or denial that’s no longer serving its purpose as a ‘cushion.’

You should gently point out concerning behaviors that continue recurring. Make sure to keep your tone calm and non-judgemental like in the examples below:

  • “Grandpa, I’ve noticed that you’re in a lot of pain and you’re not able to do the things you love. You’re still drinking a lot, I think it’s worth going to a specialist and seeing if they can help.”
  • “I know you’ve been trying really hard to deal with your mental illness by yourself but there’s nothing wrong with seeking help. By following a structured regime, you’ll be able to focus more on what makes you happy.”

You may have to repeat yourself, but don’t lose patience. If you feel you’re getting irritated, though, it’s time to step away from the conversation and revisit it later, keeping the situation healthy as possible for everyone.

Keep Ego(s) in Check

Remember, your family member’s denial has to do with their (maybe subconscious) fear of facing reality. Hearing you point out facts may not be enough for them to acknowledge the situation.

Because their subconscious may be specifically avoiding the facts, they may even attack you for overreacting or being overbearing. It’s important that you don’t take their denial personally – and that they don’t take your efforts personally, either.

To take the focus off of you, wanting an answer, help them come to their own conclusions with thought-provoking questions instead:

  • “The doctor mentioned the pain would get worse if you kept drinking. Are there things you won’t be able to do if that happens?”
  • “Sometimes people fear the worst, when they didn’t have to worry so much anyway. What if you went to the doctor and they told you there’s nothing wrong?”… “Isn’t it worth it to see if that’s the case?”

Don’t Give Up Hope

Denial is complex. It can be a method of coping with a painful situation and is often fueled by a person’s fear and anxiety. So it’s crucial you understand where this behavior comes from – provide support and understanding, so as not make a family member feel even more scared or pressured. Calmly state facts and observations you’ve made about their situation. Ask them questions they may be avoiding asking themselves. And again, be patient.

Remember, it may be more helpful for you to guide them to realize the truth, rather than to try to force them to see it.

Written by: Merusha Mukherjee