5 Strategies for Dealing with Difficult Family at Holidays

Large group of people of different ages throw snowballs by hills under blue skyHolidays are meant to serve pleasant and meaningful purposes; for some, however, holidays result in more distress and pain than joy due to hostile interactions with others. It becomes even more complicated when the person we conflict with is someone we love and therefore have mixed feelings about.

Here are some strategies and ideas regarding conflict with people we see at holiday events:

Prioritize Self-Care

At all times, but particularly during holidays, we can help set ourselves up physically to meet the demands of our obligations by getting enough quality sleep, exercise, and an appropriate amount of healthy foods. Holidays often include foods that we consider treats, and to deny ourselves those all the time can feel like we are missing out on things that have special meaning to us. Consider enjoying “tastes”—a few bites rather than larger portions. We get to enjoy the taste with less impact on our health.

Similarly, dealing with a stressful exchange is easier when we feel well-rested, well-stretched, and generally good in our bodies.

Refrain from Using Substances

Some people think having a couple of drinks, or getting a little buzz on, will soften the experience of being around a person they would rather not be around. However, substances are a way to avoid rather than cope. The issues are often waiting for us when we finish avoiding, so consider dealing with an uncomfortable situation with everything positive you have to offer.

Many substances, including alcohol, tend to reduce inhibitions. Refraining from using substances increases your likelihood of staying in control and decreases your chances of saying something that could warrant an apology later.

Refrain from Talking About the Person to Other Family

In general, anytime you have the chance to deal directly with someone you have an issue with, there is a better chance of it being resolved amicably. Talking to a family member about a person you have an unresolved issue with, especially if that person is another family member, sometimes poses more trouble than assistance. Some family can be biased, which can come from circumstances such as hearing only your side of the story or having an issue of their own with the person you confided about.

For assistance from an objective party trained to help in these situations, contact a licensed therapist.

Timing is everything. Consider reaching out to the person in advance of the get-together and ask if you can meet and talk in the interest of understanding and healing. If the person is willing to talk, begin by listening with empathy.

Address Issues Before the Holiday

Do you owe someone a mea culpa? Is there something you wish you could resolve with a family member you will see at holidays? Meeting with a person you clash with, especially if done in the spirit of emotional connection, can go a long way in mending fences.

Timing is everything. Consider reaching out to the person in advance of the get-together and ask if you can meet and talk in the interest of understanding and healing. If the person is willing to talk, begin by listening with empathy. Try to see where they are coming from, not where you wish they were coming from. If you can convey that you heard and understand them, even if you disagree with them, you demonstrate that their feelings and what they have to say matter to you.

Keep Conversation Topics Neutral

If conversation at holidays invariably veers into hostile exchanges, and talking directly about it outside of the holiday event is not an option, stick to talking about the weather or other neutral topics. What are things you tend to agree on or at least don’t actively argue about? Resist any baiting to engage in hostile conflict. If the best you can do in the moment is excuse yourself, you may yield more respect from others and yourself than you would “getting into it” at a gathering meant to increase a sense of connection and love.

While we cannot control others, we can control our own behavior and influence the outcome of our interactions. Before walking in the door of a get-together where you anticipate seeing someone with whom you may have a difficult exchange, ask yourself what you want the outcome to be, what you can do to positively contribute to that outcome, and what parts may be best for you to let go of. Saying hurtful things is not justified by someone else saying hurtful things to you. At the same time, everyone is entitled to being treated with dignity, and it is acceptable to require respectful communication of yourself and others.

Holidays serve as opportunities to celebrate our connection with the people we love. When holiday activities include someone we hold negative feelings about, we get to choose how we will conduct ourselves, and model for younger family members how to behave in tense situations. Remember who you are, and remember to relax and enjoy the people you have the good fortune to spend holidays with.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Cammie

    Cammie

    November 21st, 2016 at 11:00 AM

    refrain from substances- surely you don’t mean wine?!

  • Wendall

    Wendall

    November 21st, 2016 at 2:47 PM

    I am already dreading this year mainly because of the whole election mess and how opposed I am to believing the same things that most of the rest of my family believes to be right. I know that I should probably just try to keep my mouth shut but truly that goes against everything I believe to be right.

  • Mindy

    Mindy

    November 22nd, 2016 at 7:42 AM

    We have such a group of gossips in the family that it is practically impossible for someone not to be talking bad about someone who is in the next room! Believe me that this one thing alone has caused so many fights at family gatherings that I can’t even count them! Really they are just in there stirring the pot of discontent when these times together should be about so much more than that.

  • audra

    audra

    November 23rd, 2016 at 9:18 AM

    I have had to altogether cut out a whole lot of the family get togethers. I mean they go ahead and do them without me and that is fine too, but for my own self it was just better to not go to all of them.

    I am just a different bird than the rest of the family seems to be and it just got more and more difficult to hide my true self just for fear of offending someone else when no one seemed to feel the same way about protecting me.

  • Jen

    Jen

    November 24th, 2016 at 7:18 AM

    wow did I ever need to stumble upon this today!

  • Jude

    Jude

    November 24th, 2016 at 5:51 PM

    Sadly my day went exactly as I had anticipated which was badly.

    I think that I will be staying home for Christmas.

  • penny

    penny

    November 25th, 2016 at 7:10 AM

    No matter how neutral the hostess or host tries to keep things, there is always that one relative who is determined to take things just a bit off course. I know that there is a desire to speak your mind, we all feel that way from time to time, but I would hope that the holidays could be more about peace than about animosities and differences. But thus is life, and we just have to try to remain strong through it and know that in thirty or so days we all get to gather and do it all over again.

  • Renee T

    Renee T

    November 25th, 2016 at 5:03 PM

    Wouldn’t it be nice if all of the yuck things could somehow be resolved before all of you have to spend time in one home together?
    Just work it out before it even has the chance to boil over?

  • Mack

    Mack

    November 26th, 2016 at 10:58 AM

    stayed home- how was that?

  • miranda

    miranda

    November 27th, 2016 at 7:36 AM

    Since I have been old enough to know, my family has always been sort of difficult for me to deal with. It’s not one thing specifically but it is like I was adopted and in no way am I like or think like anyone else in the family. This can make those get togethers pretty hard for me, because I feel like I am always walking on eggshells, not wanting to offend anyone but at the same time not wanting to get hurt myself.

  • Juan

    Juan

    November 27th, 2016 at 1:36 PM

    Why does it always have to be some long drawn out process?
    Just go to the one dinner and then go home

  • Remy

    Remy

    November 27th, 2016 at 8:43 PM

    One of my coping strategies is to put together a list of non-holiday and non-family related topics to think about or introduce into conversation. When things start getting stressful, I just pull out my phone and play my favorite scene from “Along Came Polly” or search for the most interesting covers of Michael Jackson songs on YouTube.

  • Georgia

    Georgia

    November 29th, 2016 at 11:24 AM

    Or you could just come the conclusion that you know what? This is my family, and they might be kooky but I’m going to love them.

  • Jessica

    Jessica

    November 29th, 2016 at 1:58 PM

    Rum cake anyone? Bourbon bread pudding?

  • Phil A

    Phil A

    November 24th, 2017 at 5:23 AM

    I was once banned from spending holiday with my Mom and siblings by my (father) who abused me all his life. I was a young man, a Veteran who was working and going to school. He couldn’t abuse me or control me anymore. He somehow saw me as a threat. I skipped many special family occasions since then. Rule#1 “Cut caustic, abusive folks from your life.” I spend peaceful, harmonious and hilarious holidays here on the ranch with my wife, kids and grandkids now…no traveling. I love it.

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