How to Deal With Difficult Family During the Holidays

The advertising industry would have you believe that family gatherings around the holidays are a warm, glittering dream awash with cheer and goodwill to all. If only! The truth is that most of us have a family member (or two or three) who rubs us the wrong way, threatening to ruin our revelry and dismantle our joy. While you may be able to avoid them the rest of the year, you’re still required to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with them at the holiday table once a year. Here are a few tried-and-true methods for coping with difficult people that can help you not only prevent conflict, but can also make your holiday much more enjoyable.

1. Strategize interactions beforehand.

“An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure.” Although Ben Franklin probably wasn’t talking about how he was planning to deal with his drunken uncle at Christmas dinner, it’s nonetheless wise advice for those gatherings at which you’ll encounter a family member who gets under your skin. A few days — or at least a few hours — before the event, make a plan for how you’ll manage any difficult situations if they arise. Consider all the different scenarios that could play out and decide ahead of time the best way to handle each situation. This will prevent you from being caught off guard and reacting in a way you might later regret.

Read more: How to Tackle Difficult Conversations With Your Family

2. Kill 'em with kindness.

Instead of avoiding conflict, facing difficult relationships with loving kindness can often prevent conflict from ever taking place. Rather than let your sister’s icy demeanor freeze you out, attempt to melt her with your own warmth. Maybe she’s still mad at you for forgetting to call her back or maybe she’s having a bad week at work. Whatever the issue, you’ll head off a sticky situation if you confront it with sweetness, rather than responding in kind.

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3. Learn to differentiate yourself.

According to a theory developed by psychiatrist Murray Bowen, M.D., differentiation is the ability to separate yourself from your family members so you don’t become emotionally fused with them. To a certain extent, differentiation is a natural part of growing up. But in families in which there's a lot of emotional conflict, it can be more difficult to see yourself as your own person. This makes it more likely that you’ll become reactive to them. A little pre-festivities meditation will help you remember that you are not your neurotic aunt or your depressive cousin. Or develop a mantra to remind you that your parents’ problems are not yours and that you’re an adult with an awesome life of your own.

Read more: 9 Habits of Emotionally Intelligent People

4. Wear your watch on your other wrist.

After years of experimenting with his theory in his own family, Dr. Bowen admitted that remaining differentiated was very challenging. “[Bowen] thought that the most differentiated person could expect to remain mostly differentiated for the first half an hour of a family get-together, and then after that all bets are off,” says professor of family therapy Kirk Honda, PsyD.

Making a change that feels weird to you, such as wearing your watch on your other wrist, can help you remember to remain differentiated. “I’ve prescribed this to clients before because it feels weird,” Honda says. “An hour or a couple of hours in you’ll realize your watch is on your other arm, and it will remind you to remain differentiated to what’s happening and to not get wrapped up in the emotional field.”

5. Practice mindfulness.

When your overly critical sister comments on your second serving of mashed potatoes as she eyes your waistline, you feel the anger rise inside you like a volcano on the verge of erupting. But that doesn’t mean you have to blow your top. Mindfulness allows you to be aware of your emotions in a difficult situation without reacting to them. Instead, observe your anger toward your sister’s comment like a casual bystander rather than a combatant. Focus on your breath, taking a few slow, deep inhales and exhales. Notice the emotions, and then send them on their way.

Read more: 8 Easy Mindful-Meditation Techniques

6. Put on your “compassion glasses.”

Seeing people through a compassionate lens can help you better understand them and be less reactive. Take, for example, your uncle who tells inappropriate jokes. Rather than just labeling him as offensive, have you ever considered why he is the way he is? It’s unlikely he’s doing it just to annoy you.

“Most people who present problematic social behaviors at a get-together are doing so out of desperation,” says family therapist Kirk Honda. “They’re often worried that no one likes them, so they’ll try to control things by talking a lot or by desperately trying to get laughs because they feel so uncomfortable." Keeping that in mind may help you to be kinder to your offensive uncle instead of fleeing in embarrassment.

7. Get one-on-one time.

We all have that relative who talks too much or too loudly or only about himself. This is often an attention-seeking behavior that shows up in a group dynamic because the individual feels uncomfortable or unheard. Although this person may be so annoying to you that the thought of being alone with them makes your skin crawl, you may find that they’re much different when you’re in a one-on-one situation. Make an effort to get to know them a little better before passing final judgment by suggesting a walk around the block or a trip to the store. Their company might not be so contemptible in the confines of your car or in the quiet of the neighborhood at night.

8. Adjust your expectations.

You can’t expect your narcissistic brother to suddenly become empathetic and kind. This will only end in disappointment. In fact, many of your problems with specific family members can be traced to your own expectations. People are who they are; you can’t change them. Realizing this and letting go of some of your standards accordingly will help prevent disappointment and clashes due to unmet expectations.

Read more: 7 Ways to Set Clear Boundaries With People in Your Life

9. Focus on the positive.

It’s all too easy to adopt black-and-white thinking when something or someone is bothering you. But no one is all bad. When a member of your gene pool (or someone who married into it) starts dampening your holiday cheer, immediately prompt yourself to come up with at least one positive thing about that person. This might be a happy memory, a way the person has supported you or a good character trait. Hold on to this thought and try to let go of your negative feelings before they consume you.

10. Show up with intention.

You’ve brought gifts for the kids and a dish to share, but what else will you bring to a family holiday celebration? Family therapist Kirk Honda encourages showing up with intention. “What sort of life do you want to have? Try to actualize that, instead of just reacting to things that bother you,” he says. “If you want to go home and have at least one meaningful interaction with your dad, then be intentional about that.” Rather than merely avoiding conflict, showing up with intention means being an active participant in creating the relationships you’d like to have.

What Do YOU Think?

Do you have any difficult family members? What methods do you use to cope when you have big family gatherings? Let us know in the comments section!