• Eleanor Shao

How to Handle Difficult Family Members during the Holidays

Updated: Dec 20, 2019


The holidays are a unique time of the year – for some, they represent a special moment where they get to see their family members; for others however, this period can be quite difficult. The age-old adage ‘we don’t get to choose our family’ can be especially felt during the holiday period. This might make it hard to look forward to spending time with your family. What can be more difficult is that everyone may assume that going home to your family is a happy thing, and this may make us feel even more alone in our experience.

So, for those who have “sit-through-painful-Christmas-Dinner-with-family” on their December agenda, here are some tips to keep in mind when you think you may reach your tipping point.


1. Don’t Sugarcoat Expectations and Recognise Reality as It Is

First and foremost, it is important to recognise the reality of the situation and to put the family gathering in perspective, prior to even attending it. Not all families are like a happy, functional group of individuals (this is okay!!), and often people’s most difficult qualities are shown on display amongst people they are more comfortable with. Whilst this may be hard to stomach, it will help keep our expectations of the gathering, as well as of others, at bay. This will also remind us that we are not unfamiliar to the situation, and that we have been through this before (and we were fine coming out of these situations, too!).


2. Set Appropriate Boundaries (and Keep to them!)

This point is absolutely crucial, but it can be hard to put in practise, especially with some difficult family members. However, prior to discussing how we may handle our boundaries when others may have crossed them, firstly, it is important to figure out when we might feel that our boundaries are being crossed. This may manifest in feelings of anger, withdrawal, or anxiety and discomfort, for example, and we may not know exactly why these feelings have come up. It is important to take note of these feelings, as it is our bodies telling us that we are not okay with the situation. Identifying a pattern in this will help us to figure out when we may need to speak up about our boundaries being crossed.


In an ideal world, people would respect each other once a conversation about boundaries is had. However, this often is not the case – in which case, protecting ourselves is something we need to prepare for and be mindful of. This may come in forms such as setting time limits on how long we spend with this person, or perhaps taking frequent breaks from the conversation, for example. Otherwise, it may be setting conversational rules, where certain topics that are bound to start an argument, are avoided, or kept to a strict minimum. For example, if a family member is particularly rude about your partner, it may be helpful to plainly state “any rude comments about my partner will result in me leaving the dinner”.


As a sidenote, it is also important to remember that we can give ourselves the permission to let go of toxic family members - and this doesn’t make you a bad person! There are some people, or relationships between two individuals, that are not healthy to be around, and it may be better for our wellbeing to not engage in a relationship with them.


3. Practice Self Care (Before and After seeing them!)

Finally, it is important to remember to take care and be kind to ourselves before and after this potentially stress-inducing event. This may be indulging in activities that we enjoy and make us feel good about ourselves. Maybe that’s yoga for you, or chatting with friends over a glass (or three) of wine, or reading a favourite genre or book. These soul-nourishing activities can help you ground yourself in the things that do make you feel good about yourself and your life, and remind you that these family events are not all-consuming situations.


This blog most definitely didn't cover every situation that can arise from a family gathering, and if you feel as though you need extra support, please do not shy away from reaching out.

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