Coping with Difficult Relatives Over the Holidays


Most of us have at least one family member that makes us cringe during holiday get-togethers. And the thought that they somehow won’t be able to make it is so relieving you could almost throw a party in their absence. But believe it or not, difficult relatives actually teach us a lot about ourselves, and if we’re willing to learn from them, we can be better, more mature individuals.

Hey blank stare, eye roll, and shade—I get it! No one wants to hear about maturity when you feel your holiday, the one that’s supposed to give you all the warm and fuzzies, is held hostage by a family member who does nothing but bring you down.

But here’s the thing—you really have no control over your relatives, only your reaction to them. So, here are 11 tips for dealing with those oh-so-difficult family members you’d like to see skip holiday dinner this year.

1. Deck the halls with self-reflection

What do you think your reaction to your difficult relatives says about you? This may be an easy question to answer for some, and more difficult for others. But it is a question worth answering if you want to learn a little more about yourself. I’ve had relatives who embarrassed me to no end, and I realized it was mostly because I felt they were a reflection of me. I had difficulty disassociating my identity from theirs and felt invested in making sure they were more perfect so I could appear to be, too. This type of self-understanding helped me to address personal issues such as my inclination to feel responsible for family issues outside of my control, and may do the same for you.

Here’s the thing—you really have no control over your relatives, only your reaction to them.

2. Put a label on it

What do you think is wrong with your relatives? Are they pompous, untrustworthy, bullies? Maybe they have a legitimate personality problem. Whatever it is, label it. While I normally wouldn’t recommend boxing people into categories, in this context we can take a cue from doctors who use this method to make it a little easier to understand and manage patient symptoms. Trying to attach a label to your difficult relative’s “symptoms” may be a helpful way to detach yourself, and see your relative’s behavior more objectively. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend sharing this label with the difficult relative unless you are looking for a full-force blow out. But used for your own purposes, it can create a healthy distance between you and the difficult relative, and may make it easier to not take it so personally.

3. Wear their shoes

Perhaps taking an empathic stance might minimize your negative reactions towards difficult relatives. Do you know how your difficult relative got to be so difficult? Maybe they had a challenging childhood. Maybe they feel misunderstood and cope by lashing out. Or just maybe they are trying to connect with you and don’t know how. Whatever it is, knowing a little bit about them adds a different dimension to their behaviors that may make them a little easier to tolerate.

4. Check your perspective

If you are anticipating a stressful family holiday gathering due to one or more difficult relatives, you are probably thinking of all the ways they are going to get on your nerves. This does nothing to put you in the holiday spirit, and may make you anxious and uptight. But if you want to have a better attitude about it, engage in a relaxing activity like exercising or journaling before the gathering to get you physically and emotionally prepared to deal with the family chaos. Relaxing allows you to think more clearly so that when your difficult relatives come at you, you are better prepared to deal with them.

5. Bring a buddy

If you’re bracing yourself for a tense exchange with difficult relatives, invite a good friend with you who understands your situation. If the friend cannot be there in person, perhaps you can make a plan to call the friend if needed. When tensions run high, having a friend to bounce your feelings off can temper your negativity and make you feel better equipped to handle the drama.

As difficult as it may be, participate in family traditions as much as you can, particularly for the sake of well-meaning relatives who are invested in keeping family traditions alive.

6. Defend with caution

And if you happen to be one of those pleasant, understanding relatives, yet have a difficult time balancing being the calming presence with the urge to go off on a difficult relative, be sure to think before you speak. While it is admirable to want to defend family members from difficult relatives, you don’t want to become the difficult one. Think about what you’re hoping to accomplish through confrontation and how it can be helpful to both the relative you’re defending and the one you’re confronting. Avoid using accusatory language that sparks a negative emotional reaction like, “You’re always…” or “Why don’t you… ?“, or even “Don’t take this the wrong way…”, which usually implies you’re about to say something they’ll take the wrong way. Instead, soften the blow by sharing how the difficult relative impacts you and others rather than your perception of their actions and motives.

7. Get deep

In some situations you may not have anyone to help soften the blow of difficult relatives. In these cases, all you may be able to do is hope for the best—and I mean that in the least flippant way possible. That is, pray, meditate, engage in visual imagery—whatever it takes stay positive and centered so that you can deal with the chaos around you.

8. Just play the game

There are some family traditions that never cease to irritate us, whether it’s having to play the same board game every year with a brother who can’t tolerate losing, having to listen to yearly speeches at the dinner table with an uncle who loves to finesse his commentary with backhanded compliments, or being forced to watch a movie with cousins who love to share everyone’s business, including your own. While it may be challenging, try to participate in family traditions as much as you can, particularly for the sake of well-meaning relatives who are invested in keeping family traditions alive. Difficult relatives will have a harder time getting under our skin if we focus on loftier goals like maintaining a sense of family togetherness and bonding.

9. Laugh it off

Use humor to cope with difficult relatives who would otherwise have us wanting to throw down. Psychologist Leonard Felder, Ph.D., suggests using silent humor as a way to avoid internalizing negative comments from difficult relatives. For instance, if your cousin is well-known for undercutting you and everyone else, pretend he’s just a crazy guy who somehow found his way into your family gathering. It’s hard to be irritated when you throw humor in the mix, and your difficult relative will have less control over your actions.

10. When they go low, let them know you gotta go

How long is too long to spend around difficult relatives? If you’ve tried everything you know and still feel wound up over your relatives, perhaps it’s time to cut the visit short. You may even decide to leave and come back, but the idea is to give yourself a break. Being present, doing your best to get along with everyone despite your irritations, and knowing when it is time to leave is actually commendable, and a better alternative to staying too long and leaving your family holiday disgruntled or rattled.

11. Lower your standards

What makes a successful family holiday gathering? Often times when we’ve had a run-in with difficult relatives, it negatively colors our perception of what happened, even if there were good moments. But what if you lowered your expectations about what makes a family holiday gathering successful? Sure, your brother was the bully he has always been, but maybe you had a heartwarming exchange with your mother, you got to catch up with a sister you hadn’t seen in awhile, or you got a chance to see your cousin’s new baby. While no family gathering is perfect and some are downright chaotic, it can be helpful to rethink your idea of a successful family event. If you have three positive exchanges and two negative ones, perhaps that can constitute success for you, particularly if you usually don’t have that many positive interactions with family. Adjusting your perception of a successful family holiday may even help you to look forward to family gatherings, rather than dread them.

How do you plan on dealing with difficult family members this holiday season? Share with us below.