How to handle family drama at the holidays

December 08, 2022 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health
Categories: Healthy Driven Minds

Families. You gotta love ‘em. With the holidays approaching, you’re probably about to get your fair share of family time. But getting your whole family together under one roof can be a recipe for drama.

All families are dysfunctional in some ways. You can’t choose your family like you choose your friends. Little quirks that you may overlook among friends can feel much bigger and more irritating when you’re with family. Different worldviews, competition and annoying habits can put family members at odds.

We all have at least one relative who annoys us, whether it’s your aunt making insulting comments, or your sister trying to outshine you at every chance. With years of history together, some of us also have old wounds that haven’t healed.

Also, do you ever notice that when you’re with your family, you revert back to childhood dynamics? You’re a grown adult now, but somehow you’ve assumed the role you had as a child. And it isn’t pretty.

All of these factors, combined with the pressures of trying to have a joyful holiday together, can stir up quite a bit drama.

It may be tempting to skip the holidays this year and stay home. If you decide to take part, here are strategies to deal with family drama and still have a decent holiday:

  1. Adjust your expectations. That thing your grandma does that makes you angry? She’ll do it again. The fact that it’s a holiday doesn’t matter. Don’t expect that things will be different this year. Have realistic expectations and it will be much easier to deal with whatever happens.
  2. Go in positive. The mindset you bring to a holiday celebration can determine how it goes for you. Don’t walk in the door thinking about past problems or hurts, or old arguments and resentment. Go in with a fresh outlook.
  3. Know your triggers. Of course you hope everyone will behave, but it just isn’t so. Knowing what you’re in for can help you protect yourself. Think about what will trigger you (e.g., your mom will make judgements about your career or love life), so you won’t be caught off guard.
  4. Don’t look for validation. The only thing you can control is your own thoughts and actions. You may desperately want your mother to see your point of view and validate you, but assume it won’t happen. She simply may not be capable of giving you that.
  5. Have a game plan. Use past experience as a guide for what is likely to occur. Uncle Jim is going to drink too much. Grandma Ann will criticize your weight or your relationships. Aunt Edna will make inappropriate comments. Have a plan for how you’ll handle each one.
  6. Excuse yourself. If you need to, go for a 10-minute walk or excuse yourself to another room and take deep breaths. Go to the bathroom and wash your face. Practice positive mantras. A little break from the madness can help you re-center yourself.
  7. Change the subject. But do it tactfully. When the conversation gets uncomfortable, ask an inoffensive question. Comment nicely on the food or the kind of wine you're drinking. Talk about a movie you’ve been wanting to see.
  8. Keep it simple. This isn’t the time to resolve past arguments or deep-seated family issues. Stay away from serious topics (try not to get into politics!). It doesn’t need to be a huge bonding experience either. Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.
  9. Embrace differences, or at least accept them. Rather than feel shocked that your relative is so unlike you, try to accept them for who they are. Focus on the good qualities each one brings to the family. If nothing else, maybe they are comic relief for the rest of you?
  10. Set boundaries. Are there certain relatives you simply can't tolerate and need to steer clear of? How much time with your family is too much? Think it through before you go. Know when you would like to leave, and have your own way home so you don’t have to rely on a relative.
  11. Limit the booze. It may seem like the only way to get through a family gathering, but drink too much and you could embarrass yourself or lose self-control. You may already have an emotional hangover after spending time with your family, no need to make it worse.
  12. Have an ally. If your family is especially toxic, you may need outside support. This could be a sibling, cousin, partner or a friend. Have someone who knows you well and understands your family dynamic. If that’s not possible, have a friend on standby that you can text to stay sane.
  13. Smile and nod. Fighting back can feel good for a moment, but it usually ends up draining you. If a relative says something that upsets you, don’t react or get defensive. It can be more empowering to stay calm, smile and turn your attention elsewhere.
  14. Schedule post-holiday self-care. Think about what you will do after the holidays. Maybe you’ll have plenty of alone time, or connect with friends. Get some me-time on the calendar. It will give you something to look forward to when the drama heats up.

Although you may be dreading a houseful of relatives this holiday, you can handle it! Focus on the good things and find reasons to be grateful. Are you happy that you don’t have to cook this year? At least you have a family to spend the holidays with — some don’t.

All families are challenging. There’s no way around it. But we love them anyway.


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