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Keep Calm and Carry On: 7 Strategies for Dealing with a Difficult Family Member During the Holidays

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As bright and merry as the holidays might be, it’s inevitable that tension within families will arise. How could they not? Put together a group of people who have been more or less estranged for several months (if not a year), douse them with sugar, booze, and high expectations, and you’re bound to confront a few challenges.

There’s our Uncle Joe, who unknowingly spits when he talks, over-imbibes, and used his experience in the war as a launching pad for uncomfortable political debates. There’s our Aunt Gini, who, make no mistake about it, will find a way to bring up someone’s latest scandal just as the turkey is being served. There’s the Mother Hen, who’s a Nazi in the kitchen; the sullen nephew; the angry cousin; the philandering new husband. The list goes on, and the migraine intensifies, until the mere thought of enduring a two-hour family dinner has you running toward the hills.

However you define “difficult” in your family, the good news is that you can keep calm and carry on. Here’s how.

1. Set boundaries.

Perhaps there was a time in your past when you were vulnerable (and, let’s admit it, a bit tipsy on your grandmother’s mulled wine) and dished about your personal life, down to the minutest, most sordid detail. Put that in the past, and face this holiday season with a commitment to remain mum, lest your stories or confessions be used as ammo in the future. And, yes: mum

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. When someone asks an intimate question, smile and say, “Have you tried this pecan pie?” Or confuse them with an equally intimate question, your eyebrows raised. Or distract them with a compliment. However you choose to handle the awkward moment, know that boundaries exist for a reason and no one should persuade you to cross them. It’s one of the great pleasures of adulthood.

2. Realize you’re not a magician (or a therapist, stylist, admissions counselor, or bartender).

By this, I mean, you’re not responsible for anyone else’s happiness, nor are you there to listen to your cousin’s litany of complaints about the dating scene in Orlando. This is a crucial lesson to learn, and one that takes years to fully sink in. But think about it: if you walk into a holiday party, convinced your grandfather’s satisfaction with the event is your responsibility and yours alone, you’re destined for disappointment. Likewise, if you believe that an hour’s chat over champagne will heighten your sister’s self-esteem and lead to her making smarter, safer choices, you’re headed for a letdown. Be polite, help with the dishes, praise the hosts, offer your warmth and love, but remember that while you might be able to provoke a smile, you can’t guarantee anyone else’s contentment except your own.

3. Avoid drama.

Holidays are ripe for drama, because here’s a newsflash: spiked eggnog, rich dishes, claustrophobic living rooms, overstimulated children, and adults with their noses out of joint does not a pretty party make. Inescapably, someone will find something to get upset about—and will want you to jump on their train of self-pity and rage. Your job is to stay off it at any cost. Which brings me to my next point—

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4. Have an exit strategy.

This could be temporary (“Excuse me, I have to use the ladies’ room”) or more lasting (informing the hosts ahead of time that you’ll be leaving at 9:30 because of a prior commitment). Avoid carpooling if your riding partners have a reputation for overstaying their welcome, keep your cellphone handy, and never allow yourself to be bullied into staying “just for one more.” (We all know there’s never been a more deceptive plea.) Having a way out will give you comfort throughout the event, allowing you to acknowledge and appreciate that your time there is finite.

5. Wear a shield.

And no, I don’t mean the Batman shield you bought your son at Walgreens for Halloween—I mean an invisible shield that protects you from the insults and injuries of others. Whether your mother-in-law has a habit of saying, “My, you look healthy!” (code for “you’ve put on weight”) or your uncle criticizes your food (“Cranberry relish? Again?”), envisioning an impenetrable bulwark around you will keep you from falling prey to the outward manifestations of someone else’s self-hate. If someone says something scathing—or even downright hurtful—allow it to bounce right off you, preferably right back into their face.

6. Open your heart, but claim it as your own.

It’s indisputable: the way we feel about someone is directly reflected in the way they treat us in return. If you have doubts about your niece’s decision to switch careers in a formidable economy or have frankly never been fond of your son’s girlfriend’s choice of attire, now is not the time to let either pettiness or harsh opinions surface. If we arrive ill-disposed towards a particular person, there’s hardly a doubt that said individual will respond in kind (or, rather, not so kindly). Smile with honestly, listen with impunity, treat everyone fairly, and your desire to get along with others will transpire.

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7. Give thanks.

No matter the conflict and tension that might emerge—or even catch fire—realize that every holiday we have to spend with our relatives is a gift. Abandoning unrealistic expectations of pure harmony will enable you to appreciate the holidays for what they are: an occasion to feel the magnitude of how very blessed we are.

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