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10 Tips for Coping with Difficult Family Members During the Holidays

We all have family members that we have difficulty dealing with from time to time. This is problematic at the best of times, but especially so during the holidays when there are so many expectations on us to get along with everyone and to be happy all the time. For those who have to cope with truly toxic family members, the holidays can present a very real challenge and you might feel overwhelmed by it.

Toxic family members are often more difficult to cope with because we have expectations of what a family is “supposed” to look like based on what we see on TV or read about in books and online. These portrayals of families are often idealized and show the “perfect” family, rather than reflecting the actual families that we live with daily and so can put unrealistic expectations on us. Also, family relationships are often more intimate than other relationships in our lives and so they can become more harmful to us.

I hope to give you some strategies that you can use this holiday season to make coping with toxic family members easier for you. If something doesn’t work in your situation, that’s ok, just move on to the next suggestion and try that. Not all of these will work in all situations or with all families.

10 Tips for Coping with Difficult Family Members

1. Take care of your own needs during the holidays! Often, we are so busy preparing to make everyone else’s holidays a good time, that we neglect ourselves! So, make sure that you are getting enough sleep, are eating healthy, exercising, getting outdoors for some sunshine and fresh air, and are taking the time to talk with people who will nurture you.

2. Learn to set boundaries in areas that are important to you. If the idea of visiting with your husband’s Great Aunt Martha is making you physically sick because she always insults you, tell your husband that he can go without you this year. If this is something that you’ve always done and he relies on you to run interference for you, he might be resistant to this change, but stick to your guns and don’t let him talk you out of it. The secret to setting boundaries is to state them clearly, and calmly, and repeat as needed.

3. Listen to your family member! Sometimes people can become angry or unruly if they aren’t being heard, so try really listening to their grievances without any argument or disagreement. Don’t listen while trying to think of your rebuttal- really listen. Do this even if you don’t agree with what they are saying. This may work to calm them down.

4. Don’t try to fix your family member. Accept that this is who they are and that at this time, they either can not or will not change. In either case, you couldn’t fix them anyways! They would have to do that themselves!

5. Sometimes a toxic person is just trying to stir things up to get a reaction out of you, so don’t react. No matter what they say or do, how you react is in YOUR control, not theirs. You can choose to react or not. Instead, go get a drink of water or go for a walk.

6. Avoid topics that will trigger the person if possible. Whether that is politics, religion, or who bakes the best pumpkin pie, just refuse to talk about it. You can be very direct and tell the person that you don’t want to talk about it, and if they continue to do so, you can simply leave the conversation. If they follow you, you can choose to leave altogether.

7. Holidays are not the time to try and resolve past grievances! Save that for after the holidays when people aren’t so stressed and when you have the time available to sit down and discuss it one on one.

8. Utilize your support system. Get together with your friends or people who understand and support you. Vent if that helps, or simply spend some time with people who accept you as you are. For many people, this isn’t their family so don’t feel that you are the only one.

9. Refuse to take responsibility for anyone else’s feelings or behaviors. You are responsible for yours, and they are responsible for theirs. You are not responsible if your mother gets mad at you for perfectly not appreciating her gift enough- she is perfectly capable of managing her own emotions, and even if she isn’t, that is her responsibility, not yours. You are responsible for your feelings and she is responsible for hers. Refuse to take on that burden.

10. If all else fails, limit your contact with your toxic family member. You can decide how much or how little you see that person. You can choose to skip events or to come late. If someone is disappointed about that, see #9 above and refuse to take on their feelings. You are allowed to take care of yourself! And I highly encourage you to do so.

Closing Thoughts

Many people find dealing with their family challenging, and the stresses of the holiday season only tend to make this worse. I hope that these tips help you. If you need support doing so, please reach out to me by following the link. I would be happy to offer you self-esteem counseling or to simply talk about what’s bothering you.



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