How to Handle Difficult Relatives

November 24, 2016

Time with family is one of the hallmarks of the holiday season. Gathered around the table with the ones we love is an important part of the holiday season, although it can be made particularly challenging by difficult relatives.

Actually, that’s an understatement. Challenging family members and the complexity of those relationships can cause the holiday season to be fraught with worry, anxiety, anger, and resentment. It’s a cause of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, PTSD, panic disorder, and many other mental health concerns. It can cause some people to avoid family gatherings entirely. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to let a nagging, negative, combative relative ruin your holiday. Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, wrote some strong recommendations for handling difficult relatives for Psychology Today. They include:

  • Deciding how you want to show up – Remembering events that trigger you, make a plan for how you’ll best handle them this time. Get sleep, get some exercise, meditate, pray – there are a lot of things you can do to show up as the calmest, best version of yourself.
  • Avoiding conflict – If you know that there’s a topic that will particularly cause anger or strife (the election, for example,) don’t bring it up. If someone else brings up something that will light the argument fire, nip it in the bud. Agree to disagree, and change the subject.
  • Show up – Take part in family traditions, and busy yourself with helping others. If you’re the host, relax and understand everything might not be perfect.

Inevitably, you’ll discover Rubin’s advice is about how to handle yourself. It’s the best advice ever given: you have no control over how others will act. It’s like life: Charles Swindoll was one quoted as saying that life is 10% what happens and 90% how you react to it. You won’t be able to stop passive aggressive behavior or argumentative people. You can choose how you handle it.

For most of us during the holidays, that means don’t drink too much, avoid excessive caffeine, and if the situation gets to a point where it negatively impacts your mental health and/or safety, you can always leave. It’s your life, too. Make the most of it.