The holidays are a tough time for many people. Whether you simply don’t get along with family members, or the current political climate is causing tension, holidays are hard. You might struggle with holiday depression or anxiety that is heightened by time spent with immediate and extended family. There are techniques to employ that can help you deal with difficult people.
Here are 25 tips for dealing with difficult family during the holidays:
1. Manage Your Expectations
“Look at your expectations for those with whom you are uncomfortable. Expectations can be a disappointment or a resentment waiting to happen. Expectations can be a self-made trap for our own reactivity. Our attempts to change others usually result in their greater defensiveness and unwillingness to change. Observe others instead of reacting to them. If your ego and emotions become overloaded, excuse yourself and take a break and release your emotions. Try not to take another person’s behavior personally, for they often do not know what they are doing.” – Mark Bigley, LCSW
2. Make a Solid Plan
“Think back to past family holidays and patterns that have persisted over time. Anticipate unhealthy patterns and have a plan to block those patterns from happening again. This is essential for self-protection and in developing new, healthier patterns.” – Paige Harnish, LISW, CMHIMP
“What are you able to plan beforehand to change any part of the situation during the visit? Different locations, different times (briefer visits, times for respite), different activities, setting boundaries about what you will be able to do/not do; suggesting some new alternatives or asking the person(s) with whom you are uncomfortable some questions about what they might like to do differently.” – Mark Bigley, LCSW
3. Adjust Your Mindset
“We can choose to worry about what will happen or we can make a plan to reduce or eliminate such family stress. Before leaving the house, take a soothing bath (with or without bubbles). Set the mood with soft music and dim lights. Use essential oils like lavender for a calming effect, jasmine or bergamot for anxiety. Focus on the positive traits of family members and recall happy family gatherings. Having a calm mind before gathering with the family will aid in you being more tolerant and dealing with annoying behaviors.” – Nakpangi Thomas, PhD, LPC, TITC-CT
4. Protect Your Truth & Honor Your Peace
“Sometimes family holiday get-togethers feel as though tiptoeing through a minefield. To carefully navigate the dynamics, we may perceive our reactions and motivations compared to other people’s responses and behaviors. Here are a few principles to consider practicing during stressful interactions: profess your experience, protect your truth, and do what is needed to soothe your system. Application may look like making a mental note of your emotion, reaffirming facts, and doing something to honor your peace.” – LaShara Shaw, LCPC
5. Find Common Ground
“Holidays can be full of excitement and joy, as we gather with loved ones and create memories to be cherished for a lifetime. This doesn’t mean that challenges with loved ones won’t arise. During said times it’s important to focus on what matters the most vs trivial matters. Seek to find common ground with difficult family members. Be slow to speak, but quick to listen. Furthermore, give off what you desire to receive in return and just maybe your efforts will be met in kind.” – Keisha Williams, LICSW
6. Avoid THAT Family Member
“The holidays are a great time to be with family and create memories that would last a lifetime, however, there’s always that one family member that wants to know all your business, question your decisions, remind you of all the negative things you have going on in your life, and give their plans for your life.
When dealing with these family members, remember three things.
- You know what’s best for you and if they give great wisdom that may help keep it, if not respectfully dismiss it.
- Redirect the conversation with love. Ask them how they are doing and that you are glad to see them.
- Shift the atmosphere by using positive words and creating awareness of why you are here together. To make memories, love each other, and appreciate the value of your family.” – Shawndrika Cook, LPC
7. Ground Yourself
“The holidays are a wonderful time to be with family; however, it can create anxiety for those who have difficult family members. Take time for self-care and grounding yourself. Find common interests. Steer clear of topics that can create differences; such as Politics and Religion. Make a plan ahead of time and remember not to take things personally or overthink. Relax and be mindful in the moment.” – Lyndsy Mirasola, LCSW
“Practice deep breathing and some preventative meditation before the family event. You don’t want to arrive tense and stressed out. This will help you to be less reactive. You can also use your breath to keep calm when things get overwhelming.” – Chris McDonald, Licensed Therapist
8. Remove Yourself When You Can
“Remember that you’re allowed to have your own holiday traditions. You aren’t obligated to include unwanted family members, and you don’t owe difficult family members your time. It’s important that you remind yourself of that as frequently as you need. It can be helpful to have a safe person to check in with if things become difficult.” – Nicole Arzt, LMFT
9. Create & Keep Boundaries
“Establish and keep impeccable boundaries. If there’s a topic or behavior that is out of bounds for you (within reason) please state that up front and be clear. “It is unacceptable for you to smoke in my house and if you wish to do so you’ll need to leave.” or “My dating life is not up for discussion.” And then, if necessary, restate those boundaries, “As I said, I’mPaige Harnish not going to be discussing my personal life with you. Would you mind taking this spoon to the dining room? Thank you!” The re-direction at the end is helpful.” – Lisa A. Curtis, LCSW, CASAC
“Don’t take the bait. Difficult family members can unknowingly or purposefully dredge up conflict. Simply respond by stating, ‘I am not going to discuss that topic with you.’ Put a hard stop on the amount of time you will spend at holiday gatherings. Two hours might be all you can safely manage, but you should feel proud of having spent that amount of time, which is enough for you to have maintained engagement with people you value.” – Stephanie Wijkstrom, MS, LPC, NCC
10. Practice Self-Care
“Before going to a family event that might set you off emotionally, engage in something that will help you relax, such as taking a nap, deep breathing, using essential oils, or partaking in a favorite hobby.” – Muriel Casamayor, LMFT
11. Be the One to Host the Event
“By hosting the holidays yourself, you can be in a little bit more control with those difficult family members. You can set the start and end time, as well as be in control of who is attending and even what is being served. Your house, your rules!” – Dr. Nicole Lacherza-Drew, Psy.D.
12. Avoid Controversial Topics
“Controversial topics, like politics, religion, and social issues only lead to arguments and bad feelings. Instead, talk about work, school, sports, movies, books, food or even the weather. If the subject strays to a controversial topic say something noncommittal like ‘Really?’ or ‘That’s interesting,’ then excuse yourself to go to another room or help the host.” – Steven Rosenberg, Ph.D.
13. Be Ready to Change the Subject
“If you know certain topics lead to arguments or heated discussions, remind yourself that not engaging in them, changing the subject, or passively listening does not mean you are agreeing or complacent, it can also mean you refuse to energize anything that can lead to frustration and have chosen to protect yourself.” – Kara Kushnir, MSW, LCSW
14. Create a Signal
“Have a plan to respond to distressing situations. Maybe have a ‘code word’ that sends the signal that you’re feeling overwhelmed and need a quick way out of the situation. If you’re walking into an environment that you know is going to be stressful, think ahead about an exit strategy.” – James Cochran, Licensed Counselor and Co-host of Super Together
15. Be on the Same Page With Your Spouse
“Have an open dialogue with each other about your fears and expectations for potential holiday encounters. This will give you the opportunity to discuss strategies to deal with potential conflict. You can also be more in-tune with each other andKara Kushnir notice if one of you is feeling uncomfortable. When you prepare ahead of time and form a united front, you’ll be much better at dealing with your in-laws. While in the past, these occasions have contributed to more stress in their marriage, you now can weather them successfully because you were on the same page going in.” – Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, MS, LCPC
16. Avoid Overindulgence
“Minimize your alcohol intake; this will allow you to maintain better control of your stress-tolerance and decision-making. If you keep your own emotional levels in check, then you will have a better chance of tolerating the ups and downs.” – Dr. Lindsay Israel, Psychiatrist
17. Listen to Your Body & Mind
“Trust your own internal compass and pay close attention to when you need to pace yourself. There may be times that you decide it is worth enduring some discomfort to receive the gains of connection. While, other times, you’ll decide that the discomfort is not worth the expense.” – William Schroeder, LPC
18. Bring a Happy Reminder
“This can be a favorite photograph, a funny text from a friend, or a silly cat video on youtube. Anything that makes you smile or laugh can help relieve stress in a difficult situation. If you get overwhelmed, step away for a second and look at your happy reminder.” – Dr. Holly Schiff, Psy.D
19. Become an Objective Observer
“Rather than feeling stuck in an overwhelming situation, pretend to step back and watch what is happening around you as if you were watching a movie. It feels much different to observe than it does to get swept up in the experience.” – Jon Reeves, PhD, PLLC, Clinical Psychologist
20. Have Compassion for Yourself
“Practice self-compassion while you are with your family. Offer yourself the kindness you would a friend by saying ‘This is really hard’ or ‘I am sad that it is difficult to be with my family.’ Then ask yourself what you need and if you are able to meet that need then do it.” – Jessica McCoy, LMFT
21. Don’t Be Afraid to Say No
“Consider changing traditions that don’t involve people that aren’t aligned with who you are. Choose to excuse yourself from holiday activities that you don’t feel comfortable going to. Remember, saying no to attending certain events or engaging in certain conversations doesn’t mean you don’t care about the people that are a part of them. It means that you are protecting your peace so you can continue to engage with people you care about without excess stress or resentment. Loving others is so much better when you are loving yourself first.” – Margot Charkow-Ross, LCSW, LICSW
22. Up Your Communication
“Practice communicating from a position of ‘I.’ We sometimes focus on pointing out all the ways ‘you’ have it wrong, but the moment we step into a conversation about ‘you,’ we throw down the flag to start debating. Take time to pause and think about your own reactions to difficult family members when they communicate with you. Sometimes taking a moment to clarify is helpful: ‘‘What I heard you say was…’ and then repeat what you heard. These can be white flag moments.” – Kim McGuiness, M.Ed., LPC, NCC
23. Decide in Advance How You Want to Respond
“While you can’t change others, you can change how you’ll respond to them and this could have a positive ripple effect on your interactions with those trying individuals. Create and rehearse a couple of simple statements in advance to help deflect tension when needed. For example, you could say: ‘Thank you for your concern’ or ‘Let me think about that,’ and then switch topics to one that feels more comfortable for you.” – Dorlee Michaeli, MBA, LCSW
24. Make an Affirmation
“Affirmations are a secret weapon. What can you tell yourself that will keep conflict from escalating? It might sound silly to say things to yourself like ‘I am a patient daughter’ or ‘May you be at ease,’ but if you believe the sentiment, it will change your thoughts.” – Chea Weltchek, Clinical Mental Health Counselor
25. Ask for Help
“Working with a trained licensed professional counselor in advance of events with difficult family members can be helpful. Knowing how to understand your emotions, communicate how you feel, and ground yourself are strategies to use when dealing with difficult family members.” – Kim McGuiness, M.Ed., LPC, NCC
How to Find a Therapist to Help You Deal With Difficult Family
To find a therapist to help you unpack and address any family issues, you could explore options from an online directory, ask someone you know and trust if they have any recommendations, or seek a referral from a nearby doctor’s office. With insurance coverage, the out-of-pocket costs per session could be very low.
For Further Reading
- Tips When Grieving During the Holidays
- Mental Health America
- National Alliance on Mental Health
- Online Therapist Directory: Sort therapists by specialty, cost, availability and more. Watch intro videos and see articles written by the therapists you’re considering working with. When you’ve found a good match, book an online therapy appointment with them directly.
Dealing With Difficult Family Members During the Holidays Infographics