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How do I deal with an angry family member?

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A patient’s family can become angry for any number of reasons. The anger is usually brought on by fear or confusion. Their loved one has become weakened, and there’s nothing they can do about it. This is very frustrating, and frustration leads to anger.

Unfortunately, there are some things you just can’t learn in nursing school. If you encounter difficult family members on the job, empathy is always the best medicine—unless, of course, medicine is the best medicine. Regardless of the situation, keep these tips in mind when dealing with a difficult family member in healthcare:

  1. If they start to shout at you, don’t shout back. If they are yelling, stop and just listen. Calmly ask them about this problem. Let the family member voice her concerns but ask the person in a calm tone not to shout. Remember that the person’s anger isn’t a reflection or a judgment of you as a nurse or a person. It’s a reaction to the fear they feel for their loved one. If the family member continues to shout, get help from a coworker or social worker in case the person becomes violent, or calmly remove yourself from the room and alert your supervisor.
  2. Don’t get defensive, and don’t take it personally. Some patients’ family members may want to speak to a doctor instead of a nurse, even if you have the answers they’re looking for. Try not to let these kinds of comments get to you. Having them talk to the doctor can help relieve their concerns. Coordinate your responses to make sure you and the doctor are on the same page.
  3. Let them talk it out. The patient needs to feel safe. By letting the family member air grievances, both real and imagined, you’re helping to alleviate the patient’s fear. Being a sounding board for concerns sometimes works to calm people down—their anger has built up inside and voicing it to the nurse often can relieve anger.
  4. Be empathetic. Attempt to address the underlying cause of the person’s anger. It’s most likely fear. Don’t refer to or describe a patient’s loved ones as “difficult.” Similar terms or phrases can be offensive to some individuals, which will only make the situation worse. In many cases, the phrase “difficult patients” may be outdated. In reality, family members don’t see themselves difficult at all. They’re just worried for their loved one. Try to put yourself in their shoes when responding to their questions or talking about them with a co-worker. Instead of saying “difficult family members”, use phrases like “family members with a lot of concerns” or adjectives like “anxious” or “worried”.
  5. Ask follow-up questions and ask about specifics. Let the family member know you’re an ally by showing concern for their concerns.
  6. Let the family member know you’re there to help. Bring them information to study about the patient’s condition or plan of care. Try to find a doctor or counselor who has a few moments to address the person’s fear or concerns.
  7. Avoid unrealistic expectations. Obviously, everyone wants their family to be healthy, but unrealistic expectations can set you and your coworkers up for failure. If the person expects their loved one to be okay even though they have existing health complications, do your best to adjust their sense of reality by explaining the patient’s medical history and current chances of survival. Discuss any potential side-effects beforehand to prepare them for the worst-case scenario. Use your judgement when explaining the risks of the procedure or treatment. Some comments may only inflame their concerns or emotions. When in doubt, put yourself in the person’s shoes. Keep them informed without overwhelming their anxiety.

Patient care is about more than just administering treatment; it’s about helping the patient’s family members through this challenging time. Keep these tips in mind when some patients and their loved ones get to be too much on the floor.

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