Dealing with Difficult Family Members During the Holidays

Holiday Harmony

The holiday season is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, filled with love, joy, and togetherness. But when Uncle Pete starts talking politics, or Grandma Sue asks a rude question, the family celebration can quickly turn from special to stressful. “We have high expectations for the holidays to be perfect, just like we remember from our childhood or like we wish would have happened in our childhood,” says Gena Ellis, relationship facilitator at First Things First. “Unfortunately, our relatives can make family time less-than-pleasant by bringing up past conflicts, complaining about how things are done, or even instigating problems with family members. With a pandemic taking place during the holidays this year, some family members might cause strife by being rigid or inflexible in planning the annual celebration.”

So, what a person to do when difficult relatives come knocking? Here, Ellis shares her best tips for keeping the peace – and your sanity – this holiday season.

1. Take care of yourself, especially during the holidays.

First and foremost, you’ll be in no shape to interact with difficult family members if you aren’t making your physical and mental health a priority. Ellis advises, “Make sure that you are eating right, getting enough sleep (experts recommend seven to nine hours a night), and finding time for exercise and meditation. Also, if you’ve taken too much on over the holidays, don’t be afraid to ask for help; even a little help can go a long way in reducing your stress levels and allowing you to enjoy the moment.” 

2. Set boundaries.

Establishing healthy boundaries, whether by making certain topics off-limits or by minimizing contact with a difficult relative, creates an environment where you can thrive. According to Ellis, “It may be in your best interest to give yourself some space – for example, by taking a walk around the block when things feel tense, or by opting not to spend the night with your extended family. By putting boundaries in place like these, you are choosing to remain calm and in control; you aren’t allowing that difficult relative to trigger you.”  

3. Manage your expectations

Expectations are often elevated during the holidays. While it would be nice if Aunt Nel suddenly stopped making passive-aggressive comments, it’s likely that her behavior won’t change from one year to the next, which means adjusting your own expectations is the best path forward. “Having realistic expectations of how your family members will behave can help prepare you to react in a more level-headed way, and even try to have a sense of humor about it,” Ellis shares. 

4. Choose your battles.

It can be hard not to fire back to your relative’s provocations, but remember – you do not have to engage in conflict. “Not everything is worth a fight,” Ellis says. “Instead of letting family members get under your skin, recognize that you are only going to be around them for a limited time and refuse to engage.” Redirecting the conversation and taking a breather are both effective strategies for de-escalating a potentially upsetting situation.

5. And postpone the battles worth fighting.

If a complicated topic simply must be addressed, save it for another, more appropriate time. Ellis adds, “Holiday gatherings should be about making and recalling memories, not hashing out issues around the dinner table. Save the conversation for later, and keep the family busy by engaging in activities like decorating gingerbread houses, going ice skating, or playing games.”

Family tension will inevitably flare up during the holidays, but that doesn’t mean your celebration is destined for disaster! By focusing on what you can control, like your reactions and your surroundings, you can enjoy yourself and this very merry time of year.

Gena Ellis

Relationship Facilitator, First Things First

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