10 Ways to Cope with Difficult Relatives During the Holidays

Keep family gatherings friendly and conflict-free with these tips

Two family members argue during a holiday gathering.

Keep family gatherings friendly and conflict-free with these tips

Getting together with relatives this holiday season? Family gatherings are usually seen as joyful, but many people find them overwhelming and not good for their mental health.

Personality conflicts, yearly fights and difficult relatives can ruin the celebration. This season, follow these 10 tips for dealing with difficult family members during the holidays and making family gatherings more enjoyable.

1. Adjust your attitude

Worrying about an upcoming gathering can cause anxiety before it even starts, says Thomas C. Lian, MD, a psychiatrist and behavioral health medical director with Scripps Health.

Better to focus on behaviors that can reduce anxiety and make you feel better instead of worrying, he says. Before a family event, do something relaxing, such as practicing yoga or listening to music.

"Focus on the positive qualities of family members before gatherings, not the negatives," says Diep Ho, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Rancho San Diego.

Seeing difficult relatives without feeling stressed will enable you to react calmly to their behavior that bothers you.

2. Have realistic expectations

It would be great if your difficult aunt or uncle didn’t criticize your outfit at the family dinner this year, but don't count on it.

We shouldn’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,” says Dr. Lian.

3. Keep potentially upsetting topics off-limits

Politics and religion are obvious, but people also bring up touchy 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 and make you feel uncomfortable.

Set boundaries. “Stay away from topics that can cause arguments. If someone does bring it up, try to change the subject in a polite way,” Dr. Ho says.

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

Smiling at a favorite photo or a funny text message from a friend can help reduce stress. When things get too stressful, plan to sneak away, take a break and look at your happy reminder.

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.

Dr. Ho says you can’t control what your difficult relatives do. Don’t try to change them. Instead focus on controlling your own actions and thoughts.