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4 Ways to Survive Holidays With the Family

... and how to answer those questions you just know they're going to ask.

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Many of us spend more time with our families in the final five weeks of the year than we do during the other 47. For those who don't get along well with their relatives, it can feel like there isn't enough spiked eggnog in the world to make holiday gatherings easier to get through.

But in my 35 years as a marriage and family therapist specializing in anger management, I've discovered that the holidays are survivable, and can even be pleasant, if you do a little advanced preparation. Here are 4 strategies to get you through this season of joy with your joy intact:

1. Remind yourself that it's not about you.

We all have a tendency to revert to our childhood selves when we're with our families. We could be successful professionals with families of our own, but as soon as we step through the door of our parent's house, it's like we step back in time. It's normal for your parents and siblings to treat you like the teen they once knew because that's how they still see you—and it's normal for you to act like your 13-year-old self because that's how you're familiar with behaving around your family. You're not alone in feeling this way, according to social science research.

The trick is to not judge yourself too harshly for reverting to childhood behaviors, and to not let the way your family treats you get too far under your skin. Remind yourself that the way you interact with your family doesn't reflect on who you are as an adult.

2. Practice mindfulness.

When a family member says something upsetting, blowing up at them or snapping a passive-aggressive comeback won't make anything better. To keep your cool, try practicing mindfulness. Excuse yourself and find an empty room to escape to for a quiet moment of slow, calm breathing, or just take a walk around the block.

A holiday dinner probably isn't the time to tell the family member that what they said was hurtful, but trying to swallow your anger isn't likely to make you feel much better either. So, after you've taken those calming breaths or that walk, write down what it is that they said, and how it made you feel, then put it in your pocket and save it for a later conversation.

3. Escape when you can.

If your family obligation is a holiday dinner, and yours is a finger-foods-to-nibble-on-before-the-meal family, find out what time dinner will actually be served and arrive just early enough to comfortably take your seat at the table, and then leave early if you can. If you go home for the holidays and are committed to a few solid days with your family, make plans with a local friend to break up your time there, or go catch a movie. It'll be a nice distraction, a break from the stress, and maybe even something to talk about when you regroup with your family.

4. Plan responses in advance.

You can expect intrusive questions about your personal life from your family when you're single, or when you're married but don't have kids, or if you're recently divorced, or have gained weight, lost weight—basically, your family will ask you intrusive questions no matter what's happened to you this year. Come prepared with some canned responses; this could even be a time when white lies can come in handy.

Most important, be kind to yourself this holiday season. The holidays can be tough and your family can trigger you like no one else can. When you to feel like your insides are boiling with rage, practice loving self-talk: "You're beautiful and you're strong and you're OK just the way you are." And remember, only a few weeks to the finish line...

For more information on anger and coping with difficult situations, please visit my website and sign up for my newsletter.