4 Strategies for Dealing with Difficult Family Members During the Holidays

Dealing with difficult family members is never fun. But when it comes to the holidays, it's worse! Here are 4 strategies to help you navigate what could be a delicate situation.
Stress during the holidays, unhappy woman, headache

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and from greeting cards to Christmas carols, the message is that “there’s no place like home for the holidays.” Something about the season makes us envision Hallmark movie-style family gatherings with beautifully decorated homes, tables laden with delicious food, and everyone on their best behavior. But for many people, the reality is more Clark Griswold than Norman Rockwell.

Family dynamics can be tricky any time of year, but something about the holidays adds an extra layer of tension to an already stressful situation. When faced with a mother-in-law who makes snarky comments about your cooking or an outspoken uncle who turns every conversation into conflict, skipping out on the whole family holiday scene sounds tempting. But before you hitch a ride on Santa’s sleigh and head to the Bahamas until January 1, try practicing the following tools and strategies for dealing with unpleasant people. With a little preparation, you can confidently handle any situation without allowing family drama to steal your holiday joy.

nice holiday dinner

1. Know your boundaries and protect them.

There are so many hot-button topics in today’s world that conversing with someone can feel like walking through a minefield. Common subjects that can escalate quickly include politics and religion, but there are personal topics like breakups, divorces, financial issues, and children that can turn into uncomfortable conversations. The trick is to have a plan for how you will react to the inevitable insensitive or controversial comment.

You should also have an exit strategy. “Know what topics you are willing to engage in, and if you need to change the subject or walk away from the conversation, do it,” advises Nicole Bowers, MS, NCC, LPC licensed professional counselor. “If you are worried that leaving the situation will be perceived as rude, don’t be. “It is not disrespectful,” assures Bowers. “Rather, it helps you protect your peace in distressing situations.”

2. Know the difference between assertive and aggressive language.

family fighting in the kitchen

Refusing to stand up for yourself because you are afraid you will come off as rude is not healthy for anyone. It sends the message that you are okay with the unwelcome behavior and fuels resentment as you keep all those feelings bottled up. The good news is that you do not have to be aggressive to assert yourself. “Assertive communication is the ability to express feelings, opinions, needs, and desires in a direct, honest, and appropriate manner,” Bowers states. She suggests calmly using phrases like, “I’m noticing that we remember that situation differently,” or “This is not a topic I am willing to discuss, but I’m happy to talk about something else with you,” to let someone know that they’ve crossed a line.

If the offender continues, you can be more direct while still being polite. “If you continue to speak to me like this, I will no longer engage in this conversation because it is hurtful to me,” gets to the point. Bowers warns that standing up for yourself can be met with defensiveness. But don’t let someone make you feel guilty for establishing a boundary. “Your limits are appropriate even if someone is unwilling to accept them,” she says.

3. Try the “it’s not you, it’s me” approach.

Using “I” statements is a great way to remove anything that feels like blame-placing or shaming. Telling someone “I feel” instead of “you make me feel” or “I need” instead of “you aren’t giving me” can diffuse a reactive response. “An ‘I’ statement speaks only to your perspective or emotional experience and allows for a nondefensive response from the other party,” explains Bowers.

4. Control what you can.

man and woman having a holiday meal together

No one can push your buttons like your family, but at the end of the day, you have to take responsibility for your own actions. No one has power over you that you don’t give them. “Remember that you are always in control of how you think, feel, and respond,” says Bowers. “No one else has control over that, no matter how hard they try to make you believe they do.”

Remember, no family is perfect, but that doesn’t mean you have to let yours steal your holiday joy. Go into the season with firm boundaries but also with love and kindness. Often, someone’s bad behavior has nothing to do with you and everything to do with their own issues and insecurities. If you can look at that person with compassion and exhibit the behaviors you would like to see in return, you might find common ground. Even the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes when the Whos welcomed him into their celebrations. Sometimes, a little kindness is all it takes to turn a Scrooge around.

Read Next:

Estrangement and Family Dynamics – How to Nix the Rift

Celebrate! Don’t Just Survive the Holidays

Surviving the Holidaze: A Hilarious Guide to Navigating Holiday Stress


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