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Tips for CNAs: How to Handle Difficult Family Members on the Job

Although it’s perfectly normal for family members to show a deep concern for their loved ones’ well-being, there may be times when a family caregiver may become intimidating, overly demanding, and consistently create an uncomfortable environment for everyone involved. However, with a little insight and understanding about what your fussy family member is experiencing, certified nursing assistants (CNAs) can be empowered with winning their trust and make the work environment less stressful.

The Controlling Family Member

As Mrs. Jones’ daughter, Anita, barges into the bathroom without knocking, she interrupts her mother’s privacy by demanding to know when the doctor is arriving. With a high pitched shrill, she asks you, “where is my mom’s blue pillow?” As she revolves around the room, she continues to point out minor issues that are obviously increasing her agitation. Finally, she informs you that you don’t know how to care for her mother and she’s filing a complaint.

First, Don’t Take Anita’s Behavior Personally

After years of caring for their parent or grandparent, many caregivers feel a loss of control when their loved one is admitted to a nursing home or hospital. Unfortunately, they may shift their guilt, fear and anxiety to the healthcare workers that are trying to help. Although it’s impossible to understand fully why people act out in certain situations, it is obviously clear that Anita’s behavior has nothing to do with your care or competency.

Some adult children of aging parents have acted as full-time caregivers while giving up other relationships that may have resulted in children, spouses, and even friends. When their parent is placed in a medical facility, family caregivers may return to an empty home in complete isolation.

It is possible that Anita is experiencing an overwhelming guilt that makes her feel as if she could not care for her mother well enough to keep her out of the nursing home. Mrs. Jones may have asked her daughter several times to promise she’d never be “sent away” and now that pledge has been broken. Some family caregivers, like Anita, may shift the blame to the healthcare team and project their fear of the approaching death of their parent on the CNAs and nurses who care for them.

How CNAs Handle Bad Behavior

Though you may want to confront or avoid Anita altogether, either of these responses may make her agitation worse. Since Anita is in fear of losing control of her mother’s care, pull her aside and report the positive activities that Mrs. Jones enjoyed that day. Making Anita feel like part of the healthcare team may decrease her anxiety and reduce the workplace stress.

Only engage in topics that are part of your role as a CNA. If Anita asks when the doctor visits her mother or what medication she’s had, refer her to the nurse in charge for answers to those questions. If family members who practice bad behavior wish to vent about their dissatisfaction with the nursing home services, you can lower your stress, help them calm down and stay safe by using body language such as:

  • Stand at a comfortable distance and listen without offering any advice or solutions
  • Speak calmly and hang your arms loosely by your sides
  • Face the agitated person but avoid direct eye contact
  • Report threats or intent of physical harm immediately to your supervisor

The most important part of handling agitated family members is to work as a team and find solutions together. A common characteristic of family members who behave badly may be to “split staff” by accusing several CNAs or nurses of providing inadequate care. Never agree or engage in negativity and always maintain your professionalism and calm demeanor.


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