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How to Deal with Difficult Family Members Over the Holidays

Nov. 25

It’s a holly, jolly, Christmas! It’s the best time of the year. Or is it? The holiday season is supposed to bring joy, laughter, and happiness to all. So why do some of us feel an immense amount of dread when we think of the holidays?

Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years bring forth an opportunity to gather with loved ones, friends, and family to celebrate. Whether it's a loud, rambunctious aunt or a cousin always trying to one-up everyone, gathering with difficult family members can cause some serious headaches. Family gatherings have a reputation for creating annoying and uncomfortable situations. They can also elicit a range of responses besides stress, like sadness, isolation, and grief. This opens a can of worms for comparison and conflict, making it more difficult to get along. 

Dealing with difficult family members is no easy feat. While we can’t control how our family reacts or behaves in certain situations, there are several ways to mitigate our own discomfort and protect our sanity. Below are some tips for handling difficult family members and surviving the holiday season.

Acknowledge Your Feelings

It’s okay to have mixed emotions when it comes to family. Relationships are hard work, and that includes the ones we have with our family members. Maybe your strained relationship makes you feel sad or frustrated, or maybe you feel anxious about seeing them while also wanting to catch up. It’s important to remind yourself that your feelings are valid and allow yourself to experience those emotions. Stifling them will only prolong what you are feeling. 

Know Who Your Allies Are

Sometimes, your biggest support system is a trusted loved one. It can be helpful to identify some supportive family members to lean on during family gatherings. Having someone on your side to back you up, help navigate an uncomfortable conversation, or even change the subject when things get weird is crucial. Consider asking this person to sit next to you at the gathering or to help intervene during conversations you are trying to avoid. Even just having someone to share a look with across the table can make all the difference. 

Plan Ahead

We all know families can be unpredictable, but you have most likely guessed at their patterns throughout the years. You know which topics that can cause the most arguments, like politics, career choices, or someone's lifestyle. These do not have to be left up to chance. Set boundaries on which topics you are willing to engage with and plan a few responses ahead of time in case they do come up. Talk with your support group beforehand about ways to change the subject or how to politely excuse yourself from a conversation. 

Prioritize Self-Care

Dealing with problematic and dysfunctional family members can be emotionally and physically exhausting. Be sure to take care of your physical and mental health as best you can during the holidays, as it can be particularly draining. If you need to, consider speaking with a professional about how the holidays make you feel. 

Source: Devin Collins (2022) 8 Ways to Deal With Difficult Family During the Holidays

Source: Mental Health (2023) 10 Ways to Cope With Difficult Relatives During the Holidays

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