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10 Ways to Cope with Difficult Relatives During the Holidays

Keep family gatherings friendly and conflict-free with these tips

Woman touches the temples of her head, stressed from dealing with relatives during the holidays.

Keep family gatherings friendly and conflict-free with these tips

Getting together with relatives this holiday season? While family celebrations are traditionally cheerful occasions filled with love and laughter, many people find these annual reunions stressful. Personality clashes, conflicts that seem to surface every year and relatives who are simply unpleasant can certainly put a damper on the festivities.

Instead of preparing for battle this season, follow these 10 tips to make family gatherings more enjoyable.

1. Adjust your attitude

If you are already anticipating that a gathering will be stressful, your anxiety may get worse by the time the actual gathering begins, says Thomas C. Lian, MD, a psychiatrist and behavioral health medical director with Scripps Health.

Instead of worrying about what will happen, choose behaviors that can help decrease your anxiety, Dr. Lian suggests. Before the event, do something relaxing such as practicing yoga or listening to music.

Try focusing on the positive. “Before get-togethers with family members, think about the qualities you like about them, rather than focusing on the negative,” says Diep Ho, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Rancho San Diego.

Your stress level won’t already be high before you see them, which will help you be more tolerant and able to tactfully respond to the actions that irritate you.

2. Have realistic expectations

As refreshing as it would be if your Aunt Marge didn’t criticize your outfit this year, she probably will. Don’t expect people to change when they have behaved in the same way for years. “Minimize your contact with difficult relatives, and spend more time interacting with people you like,” suggests Dr. Lian.

3. Keep potentially upsetting topics off-limits

Politics and religion are obvious, but people also bring up sensitive subjects without thinking about how they might affect others. “Are you ever going to get married?” may seem harmless, but more likely than not, it will strike a nerve. Plan to keep conversation conflict-free by avoiding potentially sensitive topics, or simply ask what’s new and take it from there.

“Avoiding topics that tend to spark arguments helps diffuse tense situations before they even start,” says Dr. Ho. “If a family member insists on discussing it, try to change the subject tactfully.”

4. Accept that the only thing you can control is your reaction

“You can’t stop people from bringing up controversial subjects or asking rude questions, but you can monitor and modify your own reactions,” says Dr. Lian. “No one can force you to engage in a negative conversation.”

Instead, simply say, “Let’s not get into that now.” Then change the topic. If he or she persists, excuse yourself and walk away.

5. Don’t drink too much

If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Some people become aggressive or argumentative when they’ve had too much to drink, notes Dr. Lian. If you are one of them, minimize your drinking or stick to non-alcoholic beverages. Avoid people who have had too much to drink, and don’t let them drive.

6. Get active

“It’s difficult to be drawn into an argument when engrossed in an activity that requires concentration, physical activity or laughter,” says Dr. Lian. Play a game, go for a walk on the beach or watch a funny holiday movie.

7. Practice gratitude

Take a time-out and think about all you have to be grateful for: a delicious meal, a warm home, good health, a friend or sunny day. Anxiety can be diminished by focusing on the things we enjoy and value.

8. Practice tolerance

“We all do things that irritate other people, and we probably aren’t aware of it,” says Dr. Lian. “Try to be tolerant of others’ quirks and irritating behaviors, and don’t take them personally.” If nothing else, remember you only have to tolerate the irritation for a little while.

9. Bring a happy reminder

Looking at a favorite photograph, a funny text from a friend or anything else that makes you smile can go a long way toward relieving stress. When things get too stressful, plan to sneak away and take a break.

10. Take a deep breath — or five

Can’t physically leave a stressful situation? You can always focus on your breathing. Take five slow, deep breaths, focusing on breathing in and out. According to Dr. Lian, even this short break can have a powerful effect on stress and anxiety.

Keep in mind that you can only change yourself. “You can’t change what your difficult relatives are going to do,” says Dr. Ho. “Don’t waste your energy trying to change others and accept that you can only control your own actions and thoughts.”