Holiday Strategies for Dealing With Difficult Family Members

Keep the peace—and your sanity—with these strategies.

Posted Nov 16, 2018

 Kane Lynch, used with permission.
Sometimes it's best to be like a duck and let a negative comment roll off your back.
Source: Kane Lynch, used with permission.

Some people dread seeing family for the holidays, because they expect criticism or conflict over differences in attitudes and values. Here are five holiday strategies to help you keep the peace and keep your sanity.  

1. The Empathy Strategy. Anticipate potential areas of conflict and prepare and practice a calm, simple, level-headed response based on empathy rather than defensiveness. 

Let’s say that your diet means you won’t eat some of your family’s traditional holiday food and you anticipate some criticism. Instead of getting angry that they’re disrespecting you, consider that they might be hurt because they experience your diet as a rejection or criticism of them or how they raised you. You can diffuse the situation by pleasantly saying something like: “Although I don’t eat [blank], I appreciate that you continue our family holiday traditions. My diet doesn’t change how happy I am to be with the family so let’s not let it come between us.” 

2. The Shut It Down Strategy. If you anticipate negative comments about your appearance, politics, gender identity, sexual orientation, or anything else, you may want to prepare and practice simple tactful phrases to douse the spark before it catches fire. Deliver your message in a smooth, pleasant tone. For example, “Dad, it’s not a lifestyle choice, it’s who I am. But let’s move on so we can all have a nice holiday.” Or, “I can’t say I agree with you, but I say let’s put that aside for now and focus on having a good holiday.” And, “I know you think or wish I should [blank] and I appreciate your concern. But that’s a sensitive topic, and today I just want to enjoy our time together.” Don’t take the bait if they persist. Change the subject or make a polite excuse to leave the immediate situation.

3. The Be Like A Duck Strategy Let it roll off your back like water on a duck. It’s unfair to sour the holiday experience for everyone by getting into it with a contentious family member, so it may be best to let some things go for another time and place. But there are exceptions (see my 2017 blog Holiday Boundaries).

Being a duck is easier if you don’t personalize offensive or hurtful comments. Remind yourself it isn’t really about you. Use soothing “self-statements” (things you say to yourself) and three deep cleansing breaths to calm down. Self-statements can be things like: “She has an alcohol problem and says hurtful things when drunk. It’s not about me.” “He’s old-fashioned, so today I’ll give him a pass.” Preparation also pays here; if you anticipate offensive or hurtful remarks, you can prepare self-statements ahead of time (“She’s going to comment on my weight but I’m going to remind myself that I'm comfortable with it and I’m not going to let it bother me”). 

4. The Buddy System Strategy. Stay close to someone who can serve as a buffer between you and challenging family members and who you can have fun with. 

5. The Stay Away Strategy. Yes, the holidays are about family but having healthy boundaries may mean staying away. To decide whether staying away is really warranted, ask yourself questions like, “Is my mental health (or sobriety) solid enough to handle the situation? Do I have a strong support system in the form of a therapist, family members, friends, or romantic partner? What is my current level of stress and need for downtime during the holidays? 

Lastly, avoid the Get Very Intoxicated Strategy. The ability to act maturely, choose your words carefully, and override your defensiveness is compromised by intoxication.

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