How to Deal with Your (difficult) Family this Holiday Season

By: Rochelle Perper, Ph.D. | November 29, 2019

This article gained popularity when I wrote it several years ago, knowing that many of us feel alone during the holidays or can relate to the sentiment. Back by popular demand is an updated version about how to cope with difficult family members this holiday season.

We typically view the holidays as a time of joy and togetherness. Images of happy families coming together and sharing laughs bombard us on TV, in movies, and on social media. For many of us, however, the holiday season increases stress and imposes conflict. When families gather, members may not always get along, causing tension and awkward interactions.

Why is it so hard with family?

Difficult people exist everywhere. No doubt, you’ve dealt with your fair share of difficult personalities at work, in the grocery store, or at your kid’s school. Avoidance works as a common coping strategy, especially when confronted with difficult acquaintances, friends, colleagues, or neighbors. You can tell yourself you only have to put up with it for a short time and then remove yourself from the situation, but it’s not that easy when a close relative causes you grief. Sometimes we’re forced into situations over which we have little control.

Family members are often the hardest to deal with because they’re connected to us in a more complicated, intimate way. When families that live apart get together for the holidays, old patterns and tensions can re-emerge to trigger old wounds and memories of unresolved conflicts. When you don’t get along with a family member, it may put stress or strain on other relationships within the family, making you feel obligated to “get along” or “get over it” for the sake of the family system.

When your family system has changed

Increased stress and conflict inevitably result when families undergo significant change. Examples include families in the process of divorcing, separating, or having recently done so or experiencing a loss or trauma. For those interested in learning more about these topics in particular, please read the following Therapy Changes articles: Surviving the Holidays after Divorce and Coping with Loss During the Holidays.

Top 5 strategies to deal with difficult family members

You gain a considerable advantage in life when learning to deal with difficult people, a skill that can deliver value in any number of situations. Five top strategies appear below that you can use this holiday season to deal with difficult family members.

1.  Meet your own needs first.

Focus on taking care of your needs over the holidays rather than accommodating others in an effort to “keep the peace.” By staying healthy and balanced you will be less reactive, more patient, think more clearly, and be an effective problem-solver. Examples of taking care of your needs include:

    • Giving yourself physical space by staying in a hotel, having your own method of transportation or taking breaks away from the family
    • Getting proper sleep and practicing good sleep hygiene
    • Engaging in stress reducing activities like exercise, yoga, mindfulness, reading, listening to music, etc.
    • Politely declining invitations to participate in activities or events that cause you stress
    • Decreasing or abstaining from alcohol consumption over the holidays

2.  Don’t try to fix the difficult person.

Be aware of expectations you might have for other people’s behavior – this is outside of your control. Rather, work toward accepting them exactly as they are. Acceptance does not mean you agree, or approve: Acceptance acknowledges that things are the way they are. By accepting what you cannot change and focusing on what lies within your power and control, you will feel more relaxed and able to enjoy yourself.

    • Note: Accepting others for who they are does not mean you have to put up with abusive or inappropriate behavior. Give yourself permission to remove yourself from an abusive situation and plan ahead for your exit.

3.  Know how to disengage.

It is natural to have a reaction when a family member stirs up conflict or a heated discussion ensues. Be aware of your physical reactions to stress such as butterflies in your chest or a pit in your stomach. This is your body’s way of signaling to you that it is time to take a step back. Examples of ways to disengage include:

    • Saying: “I am getting upset and need to take a break” then break away from the conversation
    • Taking a walk, playing with the kids, petting the dog or running an errand – anything to physically create space and give your body a chance to calm down
    • Acknowledging the other person’s point of view and resisting the urge to be defensive or offer a counter-argument. Try saying: “That’s an interesting perspective” or “I haven’t thought about it in that way.” If you are baited into the conversation, try saying: “I’ll have to think about it and get back to you” or “I’d rather talk about it another time.”

4.  Be thoughtful about conversation topics.

History and experience should inform you which topics to avoid — the ones that cause disagreement and disharmony within the family system. That’s not to say that family members should permanently avoid important issues. Rather, these conversations are best at a neutral time when both parties are willing to approach it in a constructive way. Plan ahead by having a wide array of topics available that do not leave you stressed and emotionally depleted. Focusing on your differences comes easily; instead, ask yourself what you have in common.

5.  When in doubt: distract!

Practice ways to change the subject or refocus attention on something neutral. Think ahead and plan a family activity, play a game, sing carols, or watch a movie. You could also give yourself a task to stay occupied such as acting as the official photographer for the evening, preparing food, or being in charge of the music playlist.

Dealing with difficult family members over the holidays can take its toll. Talking with a professional San Diego Psychologist will help you navigate your family system more effectively and learn more about yourself in the process. You and your family are unique. Whether you seek family therapy, or therapy for grief and trauma, your therapist will help you find strategies and methods that work for you.


Image: dawolf- on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

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