5 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Family Members at Holiday Gatherings


family relationshipsFamily Relationships are the stronghold of our holiday experiences. Often, this provides a time of cherished memories and meaningful time together. But when families don’t get along as well as one might wish, this can create a stressful holiday season. Think back to your last holiday with your family. Did it go something like this:

The table is set with your holiday dishes and best silver, and the smell of the cooking turkey is wafting throughout the house. Fresh pine garland is draped just so over the hutch and bookcases, and the table is set to perfection. You look around one more time checking to make sure everything is set, and then the doorbell rings. The first of many family members have arrived. Within minutes the house is bubbling with conversations mixed with familiar holiday music. You’re crossing your fingers that all stays well. “So far, so good, ” you whisper, hoping your family relationships will hold up today. You spoke too soon.

“Nice decorations, where’d you get them? You know, you should have checked with me first. I know where to get the best ones. Oh, and I wouldn’t have draped the garland like that, I would have done it this way,” says the bossiest aunt alive as she moves and rearranges the garland you took the time to get just right. As she redesigns your display, a few specially placed decorations fall to the ground with a crash. She continues, ” I wouldn’t have put those there either. See what can happen?” Your mouth is open, but nothing is coming out. This is probably for the best, but it’s really not a choice. You are legitimately speechless.

Across the room, you hear the brashest uncle in the world clear his throat as he warms up his on-stage voice while approaching your sister, Hope. “Incoming!” you whisper to yourself, wishing Hope could hear you and duck for cover. Too late! He’s landed on his prey. “Well, it looks like your New Years resolution didn’t quite stick. Ten pounds, hmm, looks like you found them rather than lost them.” She turns beet red and is completely frozen. You feign the need for help in the kitchen and take her by the hand to lead her away.

Later as everyone is seated for dinner, brash uncle says, loud enough for all to hear, “I pray the turkey isn’t dry as a bone like it was last year.” Everyone silently turns to look at you as if watching a Ping-Pong match, and it is your turn.

The holidays, for all of their hopeful preparation and sparkle, can come apart at the seams very quickly when difficult people do what they do. We all know some variations of people like these, who can strike fear and dread into the holiday experience, but you can change that by establishing a few simple agreements and setting boundaries.

1.) Don’t expect others to change. Our greatest power lies in creating change within ourselves. Though you could delve into the whys about difficult people, and the insight might prove interesting, the fact is, they are who they are and you cannot change them. In fact, it’s a good idea to take a personal inventory to make sure you aren’t someone else’s difficult person. If you suspect you are, make a few minor adjustments and promise yourself you will give your best this year.

2.) Be aware and prepare. It is crucial, when facing difficult people, to be compassionately aware of your own vulnerabilities. Knowing and owning them gives you the opportunity to decide how you want to address or deflect intentional insults. Difficult people often home in on a person’s vulnerability and go in for the kill instinctively. That’s how Bigsy B. Little managed to destroy Hope with his well-placed insult. His aim was to make her feel small so he could feel big. If Hope had already compassionately owned that she had fallen short of her goal, she would have been comfortable in her own skin, and able to respond without feeling stung. Self-awareness and self-acceptance are the two strongest weapons against bullies like Bigsy B. Little.

3.) Use the power of your imagination. In the best relationships and especially in the most difficult, boundaries are the key to a sense of personal well-being. But how do you create good boundaries? One highly effective exercise, called Tending Fences, uses the brilliance of your creative mind to find solutions to handle these difficult relationships and create healthy and necessary boundaries.

For instance, let’s take the situation with the bossy aunt and her family relationships:

Imagine you own a large piece of land that borders the property of your aunt. The current fence that marks the boundary is small and broken, and your agile aunt often jumps the fence to snoop around on your land, leaving a mess. Because everything is possible in your imagination, you design a new fence 30 feet tall and 5 feet thick with features that allow her good qualities to come through, while a Teflon finish ensures that her negativity doesn’t stick. This clear message, mostly to yourself, ensures that nothing she says or does can get to you.

Developing strategies for dealing with any person who offers conflict will not just protect you, but it will ensure the potential for drama doesn’t get out of hand. A fence can look like going into another room, changing the subject, ignoring an unkind comment, or disentangling yourself from the proximity of the person causing you stress. You may have to be related to your aunt, but you don’t need to sit next to her.

4.) Review and Resolve. For the week leading up to your holiday gathering, take a few minutes each day to review your boundaries, tweaking each mental fence to provide the protection you need. Know that when the offending person delivers an insult, the fence will do the work for you.

5.) Trust yourself. Once you’ve done the work, trust yourself. It will give you a sense of well-being and confidence that will not only be a gift to yourself, but to your family and friends as well.

With these strategies, you can relax and know that you have everything you need to survive the family holiday gathering and truly enjoy yourself. You’ve got this. Happy Holidays!

Terry Barnett-MartinTerry Barnett-Martin, M.S., LMFT is a relationship counselor in private practice in Southern California. She is an openhearted, intuitive practitioner and writer who is dedicated to helping people find the purpose and path in their life and relationships.

Healing Lifestyles & Spas Team

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