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How to Deal with Family Gatherings and Difficult Relatives During the Holidays

By HERWriter
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Mental Health related image Photo: Getty Images

The holidays are all about family gatherings, but in some cases this isn’t the most pleasant experience. The dysfunctional family holiday dinners can be seen in almost every seasonal movie or TV show.

However, some experts have suggestions for how to deal with those difficult family members who don’t understand the concept of being merry and loving during the holidays.

“We spend three weeks rehearsing to ourselves how bad it’s going to be, so by the time we get there, we’re already mad,” said Pauline Wallin, a clinical psychologist in Pennsylvania and the author of “Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior.”

“Consider that you’re going to be there maybe three or four hours, or if you have to stay, 48 hours. Who hasn’t had to do something for work or for school that was a little bit stressful and then it’s over?”

She said attitude is everything.

“If you go in with ‘Well, I can do anything for a couple hours,’ you’re going to be a lot less stressed,” Wallin said.

It’s important to make that appearance and to be part of the family.

“You never know when you’re going to need that family,” Wallin said. “Just because certain people annoy you now, doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t be the first by your side if something happened.”

If the inevitable happens and family members start bickering, she suggests pretending as if you’re watching a movie.

“If you’re watching a movie, you’re a little bit detached,” Wallin said. “You’re observing, but you’re not involved.”

It can be difficult dealing with overcritical family members, because when someone attacks you with criticism, the instinct is to defend yourself or attack back.

“Instead of defending yourself, just agree,” Wallin said.

She gives an example of a family member saying that you’ve put on some weight. You would just say “Yeah.” That doesn’t give them much wiggle room.

“Remember that those kinds of comments reveal more about the other person than they do about you, and that is key,” Wallin said. “It takes the sting from a Level 8 out of 10 to maybe a 5.”

If someone asks a critical “why” question, she suggests just saying “I don’t know.”

“You’re disarming them,” Wallin said. “They have no power because you’ve given them no more material to work with.”

She said there are some basic causes of these family issues during the holidays.

“There’s old triggers, there’s strong emotional triggers in the family,” Wallin said. “When you go to your parents’ house or you see other family members, it’s like you’re transported back there and you become instantly 12 or 13 years old in your mind. It’s what I call the inner brat.”

She said it’s hard to keep this from happening, but keep a simple thing in mind.

“If it’s not going to matter in a week, you really don’t need to worry about it now,” Wallin said, giving an example of fighting over who sits where and in what chair.

For those who have issues with anxiety or are really shy around large gatherings, she has a few tips.

“When you get there, pick out one person to talk to or help out in the kitchen,” Wallin said. “Get busy doing a task. Have a job to do and you’ll have less social anxiety.”

For example, you can set the table, put the salad together or wash the dishes.

Avoid the negative self-talk and realize you can do this for a couple hours.

“Surely other people have much greater problems, so you remind yourself about that,” Wallin said. “It’s not the worst thing that’s going to happen. It’s just, at worst, an annoyance and an inconvenience.”

Bernardo J. Carducci, a psychology professor and the director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, said that shy people should get there early and avoid rushing because that can cause anxiety and stress.

Here are some other tips to deal with large gatherings:

1) “Be a host. Focus on other individuals.”
2) Be kind. “Give compliments.”
3) “Find out who’s going to be there and have something to say.”

Difficult family members are another story.

“Move away from them,” Carducci said. “Be kind. There’s no need to be rude, but simply spend less time around them. If you’re in a conversation with them, let them know that you’re going to be leaving in a few moments to talk to somebody else.”

He said you don’t have to answer uncomfortable questions either.

“If you’ve had problems with people in the past, think about what you’re going to do,” Carducci said. “Prepare ahead of time. How are you going to answer those difficult questions?”

It’s important to remember that holidays have an effect on peoples’ emotions.

“It tends to intensify peoples’ emotions,” Carducci said. For example, people who are usually aggressive will probably get even worse during this time. The same goes for people with depression.

“That has something to do with the challenges, the transition that’s going on,” he said. “You’re going to be in a new place with lots of people. All these additional challenges, these additional stressors, can serve as points of aggravation, points of stress and strain.”

Many people are unrealistic during the holidays, but he said you need to realize you don’t have to be perfect.

“They don’t see these people very often so everything has to be perfect, and that’s an additional stress and strain,” Carducci said.

Some other tips:

1) “Never underestimate the power of kindness in times like this. Let other people go ahead of you.”
2) “What you want to have are conversations, not debates. When people have a conversation, what you try to do is you try to build on and extend what other people are saying. When you have a debate, you try to outdo the other individual at their expense … Don’t try to top everybody’s story.” Don’t compete.
3) “Don’t drink. Avoid alcohol.”
4) “Try to bring people together. Try to facilitate social interactions. If you see somebody who is sitting by themselves, go over and talk to them. Bring them into your group … Bring people up to speed, so summarize what people were talking about up to that point.”

Do you have any tips for dealing with difficult family members during the holidays? What experiences have you had at large family gatherings during the holidays?

Add a Comment2 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

You never met my family. I start drinking at 10:30 on Thanksgiving, plug in my ear buds, smile like an idiot and put one foot in front of the other until it's over.

August 1, 2016 - 12:45am

It can be difficult to deal with family members very critical, because when someone attacks you with the critical instinct is to defend or attack back.

November 26, 2010 - 11:04am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.