5 Ways To Handle Difficult Relatives This Holiday Season

The media portrays the holiday season as a joyous time, full of happy family reunions and fun.

Unfortunately, for many of us, the festivities are fraught with tension or even outright hostility.

Personality clashes and grudges can all rear their heads, resulting in arguments and misunderstandings.

If the prospect of spending time with your relatives fills you with dread rather than excitement, take some time to prepare yourself for family gatherings.

These strategies aren’t guaranteed to make the holiday season run smoothly, but they can save you a great deal of stress.   

1. Defend your boundaries

Boundaries are essential to good mental health and relationships.

To defend your boundaries, you first have to get clear on what you will and will not tolerate.

For instance, can you cope with your relatives’ insensitive remarks about your weight, or is it a painful topic that you absolutely cannot abide?

You can set different boundaries with different relatives, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation.

Next, think of some phrases you can use to uphold these boundaries.

In some cases, a simple “I’d rather not talk about that, let’s move on” will suffice.

Sometimes, you may have to be blunt.

“No, I will not do that,”

“I’m not going to discuss this with you,”

and simply “No,” are complete and suitable answers.

You do not have to justify them further.

2. Implement consequences if someone violates your boundaries

Most people will respect your boundaries if you remain firm, but some will still cross the line.

At this point, you need to tell them what will happen unless they back off, and then follow through.

If you make empty threats, they will lose respect for you, so never make rules you won’t enforce.

For example, if a relative keeps pestering you with inappropriate questions about your relationship, you could say, “I don’t want to talk about this.

If you keep asking me questions, I’m going to end this conversation and go sit over there instead.”

Then it’s up to you to follow through.

3. Learn from the past

Unless you are meeting a relative for the first time, you will already have some insight into their behavior.

Even if you can’t understand their views or actions, you at least know what to expect.

Draw on this knowledge when formulating your strategy.

For instance, if you know that your aunt tends to behave inappropriately after a few glasses of wine, decide in advance that you will leave the room, take a walk, or simply stop paying her any attention the moment she starts to appear intoxicated.

Don’t waste your time wishing that others would behave differently.

Once you accept that it’s best to work around others whilst defending your boundaries, your life will become much easier.

It’s more empowering to focus on changing your own behavior and reactions, instead of trying to change other people.

4. Seek out the people that make you happy

If you are at a gathering with difficult relatives, it’s easy to focus on them instead of the family members you actually like, or any newcomers you have yet to meet.

As human beings, we tend to pay attention to troublemakers – but you don’t have to fall into this trap.

Decide in advance who you want to spend time with, and seek them out.

Keep conversation light-hearted, and make it your mission to find opportunities to have fun.

5. Decide in advance how you will calm yourself down if necessary

Despite your best efforts, you might find yourself overwhelmed by someone else’s negativity, or upset by their abusive behavior.

Prepare yourself by learning a few deep breathing exercises you can do at any time, practicing grounding exercises, and deciding on a mantra you can use during difficult moments, such as

“I will be OK,”

“This will pass,” or “I can cope.”

Starting a regular meditation or mindfulness practice during the holidays will also help you stay calm in tense situations.

If you take a few minutes each day to root yourself in the present, you will develop a sense of inner peace and gratitude that will spill over into all other areas of your life.

This is especially useful when dealing with difficult people.

It’s unrealistic to expect a perfect family holiday, but you can make the occasion emotionally easier for yourself by asserting yourself, acting in your own best interests, and concentrating on your own behavior rather than trying to change others.

In time, you will master the art of keeping your composure while honoring your needs, a skill that will serve you well all year round.