8 Ways To Cope With Difficult Relatives During Holiday Reunions

The holiday season is a time for family and togetherness, but that sometimes includes reunions with difficult relatives. Each year, families of all shapes and sizes convene to revisit family traditions and forge bonds through holiday traditions like reunions or family dinners. However, the hustle and bustle of making schedules, planning meals, decorating, and buying gifts may bring out the inner grinch in certain individuals amidst the festivities. Studies show that “The Christmas Effect” is a threat, revealing that the holidays are actually a tough time for many people which may bring out their worst. The holidays can be tough because of the winter blues, financial pressures of buying gifts, increased substance or alcohol use, social anxiety, or intense feelings of isolation and exacerbated feelings of loneliness.

You may have to see difficult relatives you don’t normally see except for during the holidays. This is because the holidays are a popular time of year for out-of-town relatives to visit, and a special occasion for extended families to gather.

Worried About Seeing Difficult Relatives or Family Members You Don’t Get Along With at Christmas?

When immediate and extended families come together, there’s a level of stress involved because of complicated family dynamics. With different personalities coming together under one roof, family dysfunction could be on the horizon. It’s especially unnerving when you have a few family members with aggressive personalities who are rather difficult to manage. Adding those who tend to create tension and thrive in conflict into these pressure-filled holiday gatherings could spell toxic outcomes, especially if you’re not ready to mitigate problems that may arise. Like it or not, you may have annoying and obnoxious family members you cannot avoid, so it means feeling anxious over navigating holiday drama that might ensue.

You will see these less-than-stellar relatives over the holidays even if they grate on your nerves with their well-meaning but overarching comments. Difficult relatives could be your mom who’s constantly nagging about your love life, an estranged aunt who nitpicks at your weight, or a cousin who you regularly butt heads with because she consistently rehashes historical drama of days gone by.

Difficult relatives could even be family members you’ve had a fight with in the past or were rude to you in the past and you’re simply not over it.

Family gatherings can indeed dredge up a whole gamut of emotions like anger, sadness, and anxiety. Fortunately, there are sanity-saving hacks to help you traverse those not-so-silent nights with problematic family members.

The below tips could help you get along or at least survive the holiday season.

1. Honor Your Complex Feelings in Order to Let go and Move Forward

Give yourself permission to have mixed emotions about your family. Remove the guilt because this doesn’t make you a bad relative or person. It’s okay not to be okay with certain family members. You could have strained relationships and complicated histories that make you feel angry, sad, anxious, and frustrated about seeing them. It’s important to allow yourself to feel these emotions rather than fight them. While pushing away these feelings and ignoring them may appear the adult thing to do, keeping them bottled up can intensify and prolong your agony. It could even escalate into a blowup or confrontation that would make everyone else in the gathering uncomfortable.

Instead, validate your feelings and find a supportive person like a best friend or therapist to help you navigate your complicated thoughts, feelings, and emotions about your family. When you’re able to do this, you could feel more equipped to handle a heated environment for Christmas dinner and have a better head space when facing toxic family members. When you honor your feelings, you can move through your emotions and let them flow. In contrast, holding onto them can lead to depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. Holidays and mental health go hand in hand. Don’t feel stuck by honoring your feelings, so you can let them go and move forward.

Focus on self-love. You can get to know yourself better by taking a CircleDNA test. This comes with over 500 reports that tell you about your personality, traits, disease risks, ancestry, nutrition profile, exercise, and more based on your genetics. Finding out more about yourself can help you navigate complex family dynamics with aplomb.

2. Learn to Manage Expectations to Avoid Frustration

Everyone hopes that their families will act perfectly or at least reasonably with socially acceptable behavior when together under one roof. Most people would prefer if their family members could refrain from doing or saying things that grate on nerves like fingernails scraping on a chalkboard. But some things in life may remain wishful thinking because you cannot control other people’s behaviors. Mark Bigley, a licensed clinical social worker points out that setting expectations from those who make you uncomfortable could be disappointment or resentment waiting to happen.

Bigley said, “Expectations can be a self-made trap for our own reactivity. Our attempts to change others usually result in their greater defensiveness and unwillingness to change. Observe others instead of reacting to them. If your ego and emotions become overloaded, excuse yourself and take a break and release your emotions. Try not to take another person’s behavior personally, for they often do not know what they are doing.”

Before you meet with your relatives, acknowledge what you wish they were like and accept their existing flaws because they’re likely to behave the same way as they’ve done in the past. It’s harder to teach old dogs new tricks, so accepting this fact may help you feel more detached when your kinfolk play out their typical drama and psychosis.

3. Affirm Your Self-Worth for Self-Preservation

You could be in the midst of getting another holiday cookie and eggnog when your own mother stops you and tells you, “Dear, it’s time to staple your mouth and diet.” Ouch! When your family members say hurtful things under the guise of concern that challenges your self-acceptance, it can be hard not to take those words personally. It is common to be confronted by tactless relatives in holiday reunions whose values, lifestyles, beliefs, and opinions differ from your own. And when a relative expresses disagreement or disapproval, it can be hard to take it sitting down. Although you may be tempted to rebut their words, explain your side, or argue your thoughts, this means coming perilously close to cultivating even more drama.

In reality, research points out that any attempt to control another person’s perception of you puts you under their control. Instead of escalating the situation, it may be more helpful for everyone in the venue if you take the higher road and choose kindness. Remember that even if your relatives express disapproval, it doesn’t mean they are right. Be mindful of your core values, and when family distracts you from them with criticism or negativity, don’t allow that to happen. You may not be able to change or convince them, but you always have power and control over how you choose to respond.

Instead of focusing on this conflict, forge connections with family members who uplift you. Know your worth and remember that the opinion that matters most in your life is your own. It would help to create a list of positive attributes and self-affirmation before your family shindig so you can visualize it if anyone upsets you. You are enough!

4. Set Your Physical and Mental Boundaries

If you don’t want to feel mentally exhausted and physically drained after your holiday dinner, it’s vital to set emotional and physical boundaries. Being clear on these boundaries will help you manage your anxieties and mitigate undue stress. For starters, set physical boundaries by being specific on the time and place for family holiday activities. If you don’t want family members sleeping in your home, verbalize that and give them hotel or Airbnb options.

As for emotional boundaries, be mindful of triggering topics that could set people off. Remind everyone before you start that this gathering is not for rehashing old conflicts. Resist the urge to take part in unhealthy communication. For instance, if an aunt brings up a controversial topic, nip it in the bud and redirect the conversation.

Bear in mind that you don’t have to participate in any unsettling conversation. Refuse to engage by keeping silent or stepping out (more on this later). Don’t be afraid to point out that holiday reunions are not the place for difficult conversations and conflict resolution. Save these issues for a different time. Commit to make the holly jolly season a happy one.

5. Don’t Feel Guilty for Excusing Yourself

Remember, big holiday dinners usually happen once or twice a year. Apart from that, you can choose to avoid certain family members that don’t add value to your life. If you’ve been deeply wounded by a relative’s scathing comment or actions, you may be tempted to speak up or fight back against terrible behavior. If you’ve been pushed past your limits, you can politely defend yourself, then remove yourself from the upsetting situation.

If you’re not comfortable speaking up, you can also excuse yourself from the conversation before it gets too heated. You can take a bathroom break, retreat in a quiet room listening to holiday music, or bundle up and walk around the block. If things feel too draining, offer to pick up drinks or dessert in the store. Fight for alone time and don’t feel bad making excuses when things become overbearing. If you need to leave, do so because no situation is worth compromising your physical, emotional, and mental health for. Look out for yourself and be your own best advocate.

6. Be Cognizant of Your Alcohol Consumption

You may be tempted to combat your holiday stress with a glass or two of wine and a couple of mixed drinks. However, evidence suggests that alcohol-related aggression is an imminent threat. If you drink excessively during your holiday gatherings, you’re likely to increase the chances of having family conflict.

The reason is alcohol intake will lower your inhibitions and loosen your mouth. Consequently, you may utter something that would challenge boundaries, agitate family members, and escalate situations. Lay it easy on the spiked punch so you can maintain clarity of mind. Furthermore, alcohol is a natural downer or depressant so this may heighten your feelings of disappointment, anxiety, and sadness. Alcohol could affect mood and trigger you to engage in behavior that you would not have done with a lucid mind.

7. Try to Be Polite and Civil

When you have to see a family member you’re not a huge fan of, you’ll probably regret being dismissive or rude since it will impact the experience of everyone else at the table. You’re better off taking the high road and being polite and civil to them to avoid drama or negative vibes at Christmas time. It’s natural to not want to ‘fake’ being okay with them, but it’s only for a few hours, so try your best. At the very least, try to avoid confrontation, since that’s best saved for a day that isn’t a special holiday.

8. Be Kind to Yourself to Foster Better Coping Skills

When you have difficult family members, it will be very exhausting. One way to combat ill feelings that may arise with holiday gatherings is by developing healthy coping skills which you can achieve by being kind to yourself. Prioritize your physical and mental health by taking time to do things you enjoy such as reading a good book, playing the guitar, taking a yoga class, practicing meditation, indulging in a bubble bath, or writing in a journal.

Doing activities that you like can help you destress, recharge, and boost your mood. More importantly, get adequate sleep and nourish your body with healthy meals because these self-care habits help you prevent and cope with stress. When you’re holistically healthy, you’ll be more agile and resilient in handling difficult family members. So don’t be afraid to get your “me time” to help you regroup and refocus. And if being with friends is uplifting for you, spend time with them.

Having a rewarding relationship with yourself and other people can help support you through hard times and come out genuinely happy amid the holiday madness.


  1. The Christmas Effect on Psychopathology (Randy Sansone & Lori Sansone) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257984/
  2. 25 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Family Members During the Holidays (Choosing Therapy) https://www.choosingtherapy.com/difficult-family-holidays/
  3. Born to Choose: The Origins and Value of the Need for Control (Lauren Leotti et.al.) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2944661/
  4. Alcohol-Related Aggression—Social and Neurobiological Factor (Anne Beck & Andres Heinz) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3820993/

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