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8 Ways To Deal With Difficult Family During The Holidays

Nov 22, 2022 By Devin Collins
Family cheersing over thanksgiving feast

The holiday season can be a wonderful opportunity to reunite and spend quality time with family and relatives. Unfortunately, however, it can also mean navigating drama and complicated family dynamics. Whether you’re estranged from a relative or regularly find yourself butting heads with another, family gatherings can dredge up all sorts of emotions, from sadness and anger to full-blown anxiety.

If you’re heading home or to a relative’s this holiday season, you may be feeling worried or stressed about the tension or dysfunction that might ensue. While you may not be able to control how your family reacts or behaves, there are several ways you can mitigate your discomfort and protect your mental health. Here are 8 tips for dealing with difficult family members and surviving the holiday season.

1. Acknowledge your feelings

You may have mixed emotions when it comes to your family and that’s okay. Maybe your strained relationship makes you feel sad, frustrated, confused, or angry, or maybe you feel worried or anxious about seeing them, while also wanting to spend time together. Remind yourself that your feelings are valid and allow yourself to experience those emotions, rather than fighting them. While you may want to push these feelings aside to avoid the pain, facing them head on will help you learn ways to cope and begin healing, whereas stifling your emotions may only intensify and prolong your pain. It’s important, however, that you find a supportive space, such as with a therapist, a trusted friend, or a religious advisor, where you can safely work through these emotions away from a heated environment, toxic family members, or any possible threat of violence.

2. Know your worth

At family gatherings you may be confronted with relatives whose values, opinions, and lifestyles differ from your own. When a loved one expresses their disapproval or disagreement, it can be hard not to take those words or actions personally. It’s important to remember though that the only opinion that matters is your own. Just because a family member has expressed their disapproval, doesn’t mean they are correct, or that you should be ashamed of who you are. Remind yourself that you are perfect just the way you are and that you are enough. Repeat these mantras silently or out loud as many times as you need to. You can even make a list of self-affirmations on your phone or a notepad to bring with you when you see your family. You can also write out a list of all your positive attributes to remind yourself of if you start feeling upset or down.

3. Identify your allies

It can also be helpful to identify some supportive family members to lean on during family gatherings. If you have a sibling, cousin, or an aunt you usually get along with, consider reaching out ahead of an event or family gathering to ask for help. Having someone by your side to back you up, change the subject, or run interference can save you a lot of emotional energy. Consider asking this person to sit next to you at meals or to interject during conversations if you are trying to avoid a particular family member. Even just having someone to roll your eyes at across the table or rant to afterwards can make a big difference.

4. Rely on your friends

You might also find comfort in being able to confide in those outside the family. Chatting with close friends can be a great way to vent and express your emotions, as well as escape the chaos at home. If you’re visiting family, let your friends know that you may need some extra love and encouragement that day. Ask them to check in with you regularly or text or call them when things get overwhelming. If you have a big family gathering you’re anxious about, plan something with your friends afterwards so you have something to look forward to.

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5. Set boundaries and plan ahead

Though you can’t control or predict exactly how your family is going to behave or act in every single instance, you likely know some of your potential triggers. Maybe you and a particular relative tend to get into arguments over politics or you can anticipate snide jabs about your career or lifestyle choices from another relative. You know best which behaviors upset you most and who they’ll come from. These things don’t have to be left up to chance. Set boundaries around which topics you’ll engage with and plan a few responses ahead of time in case they come up. Talk with friends beforehand about ways to change the subject or state your refusal to engage in a particular conversation. Have a game plan in place in case things go awry, such as transportation or a place to stay nearby if you need to leave suddenly. Think about a few coping mechanisms that may help you regain a sense of calm when triggered. Maybe that’s doing a few breathing exercises or texting a friend when things get to be too much. It can even be helpful to have a game plan in terms of how much time you intend to spend with your family. For instance, if you’re visiting, it might be helpful to set a definitive time to leave or plan shorter visits over long ones. You may even feel more comfortable staying with another friend or at a hotel to maintain some space. Preparing for these triggers ahead of time can save you a lot of unnecessary anxiety and stress.

6. Prioritize self-care

Dealing with problematic, unaccepting, or dysfunctional family members can be emotionally and physically exhausting, so be sure to treat yourself with kindness and compassion. Take care of both your physical and mental health by maintaining a healthy diet, getting a good night’s sleep, and exercising regularly. Doing so will help you manage the stress of a difficult family, as well as function at your best around them. Make time for the things you enjoy such as your favorite tv show, a good book, a yoga class, or picking up the guitar. Engaging in activities you enjoy can actually help you recharge and destress, as well as boost your mood. Practicing mindfulness can also reduce stress and help you feel more rooted in the present. For some people, that means breathing exercises like this body scan, meditating, journaling, or taking a relaxing bubble bath. While you may be tempted to drink to relax or destress around family, it’s also important to be mindful about your alcohol consumption and drug use. Alcohol is a depressant that can actually worsen anxiety and depression symptoms, while recreational drugs can have a heavy toll on your physical and mental health and overall mood. Likewise, they can interfere with your ability to communicate effectively with family members, as well as lower your inhibitions and lead you to say or do things that you may come to regret.

7. Excuse yourself

Oftentimes people think they need to push back against bad behavior and speak up or just sit there and take it. If you feel comfortable doing so, go for it, but know that it’s okay to remove yourself from stressful, triggering, or upsetting situations. Don’t be afraid to excuse yourself if conversations are getting heated or too draining. Go to the bathroom for a few minutes or take a quick walk around the block. Offer to refresh people’s drinks or run to the store for something. You can even just say you’re tired or aren’t feeling well and retreat to the bedroom for some alone time. If things are feeling unsafe or are just getting to be too much, leave if you need to. You need to look after yourself first and foremost and no situation is worth compromising your physical or mental health over.

8. Seek professional help

Dealing with difficult family dynamics can be painful and challenging, but you don’t need to go through it alone. If you’re struggling with your mental health or need further help navigating difficult family dynamics, reach out to your primary care provider. They can help you learn to manage your emotional well-being, as well as connect you to resources such as support groups, therapists, counselors, or other behavioral health specialists.They will be able to teach you tools to manage stress, communicate with your family, and process your emotions.

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Devin Collins

The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.

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