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How to deal with difficult family members during the holidays

Deflect personal questions, avoid political debates and handle drunk Uncle Frank.
Image: People Gather Around Food
Enlist one of your favorites cousins or siblings to sit next to that person you’re dreading so you don’t have to, suggests Dr. Smerling.PeopleImages / Getty Images

With Thanksgiving behind us, we officially have both feet planted firmly in the holiday season — and the family tension may have already begun to flare up.

"There was a yogi by the name of Ram Dass who wrote the book, Be Here Now — he’s considered the founder of the mindfulness movement — who used to say, 'No matter how enlightened you think you are, you realize how unenlightened you are when you get together with your family over holiday dinner,'” says psychotherapist Dr. Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D, LCSW.

Regardless of how much you love them, you're bound to run into an uncomfortable, annoying or tense situation with a family member at some point — especially during the holidays when so many personalities are congregated around the table. "Know that nothing will ever be perfect, you can’t change people, and this is just a natural aspect of being part of a family," says Dr. Smerling. What you can do is come prepared with tactics to diffuse the unavoidable interactions with certain characters that have a seat at the holiday dinner table.

The vocal family member on the opposite side of the political aisle

"In today’s political climate, you can certainly expect some tension to come up around the dinner table during the holidays; I would say it happens in just about every family at one point or another, it’s just the reality of the times we live in," says Smerling. "The best strategy is to come prepared: have a pre-rehearsed line or two in your toolkit that you’re confident saying if you ever feel boundaries are getting crossed. One way to dodge an uncomfortable disagreement is to be assertive and say, 'This is something I would prefer not to discuss right now, it’s too heavy and we should be enjoying the party!' or, 'I totally understand you feel that way; I just have a different opinion on it but I respect yours.'"

She also recommends mentally preparing yourself to interact with certain people. "It’s helpful to be aware of what your family is like and to come ready for certain personalities so that you’re not thrown off guard — does Uncle Charlie get belligerent and obnoxious when he’s drunk and talk about President Trump? Does Aunt Theresa belittle everything about the Democratic party? Have an idea of what people’s temperaments are like, and how to avoid pushing their buttons."

Most importantly: Set boundaries and stick to them (even if you feel more easily swayed into political territory after a few class of Pinto Grigio). "Families need to constantly be reminded that even if they don’t necessarily get along with one another, they need to respect each other and establish boundaries. Sometimes someone won’t quit even after you’ve said that you’d rather not talk about a particular issue, but if you’re firm about your decision and make it clear that you really are not open at all to discussing an uncomfortable topic, eventually they will back off. Set boundaries and stick to them."

The nosy in-law who asks personal questions that make you uncomfortable

You barely get your coat off before a your mother-in-law is asking about when she can expect grandchildren. For other's it may be a rough patch in their career or a non-existent dating life. These personal probes can be hard to handle, especially if you’re not happy in a certain area of your life (and already have anxiety over being asked about it).

"I come from a Jewish family and personal questions that make you feel uncomfortable are the norm, and are asked even before you get a chance to say hello!" says Smerling. "One strategy I like to implement is humor. It's always better to deflect with a witty comment and try not to take everything so seriously! If you take everything personally, you won’t even make it through the appetizers and drinks before your holiday dinner is ruined."

While certain questions may feel intrusive or rude, Smerling encourages people to try and focus on the fact that our families love us, even if it may not always feel like it. "Even after four glasses of wine, when it seems like they’ve forgotten how to respect us, your family loves you and it’s important to remember that not everyone knows how to express love the way they’d like to," she says. "You do have to constantly work on practicing forgiveness — forgiving yourself and forgiving them. And then maybe, just maybe, this holiday season will be different. If you go in telling yourself that you will take each conversation in stride, learn to laugh and respect each other no matter what, it will be different."

Uncle Frank, who tends to drink one too many glasses of wine

We all have that family member who is known for imbibing a bit too much, and getting inappropriate, offensive, or annoying ... or all three.

"Wine, beer and spirits make everything feistier at family gatherings! I think it’s important to plan ahead and be prepared for the worst," says Smerling. "You have to look out for each other as family members and take care of each other if you know that person isn't well or struggling with a problem. For example, if you know Uncle Charlie gets way too belligerent and can’t hold his liquor, maybe set aside a time to chat with his wife or trusted family member in private, and ask them to maybe cut him off a little earlier this year? And if the classic line, 'We don’t have to talk about this,' or 'I don’t feel OK bringing this up right now, maybe later' doesn’t work and they get belligerent due to drinking, just politely walk away. It’s OK to remove yourself from any situation you don’t want to be in; your health, sanity and happiness come first!"


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