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How to Manage Difficult Family Dynamics During the Holidays

By Pam Dewey • holidays and family, family dynamics and holidays, complicated family relationships, fighting with family holidays, handling family drama, managing family drama during the holidays, family difficulties holidays, family relationships holidays, mental health, managing mental health, self care and holidays, self care holidays • December 09, 2021

Holidays are a time to get together with your family and celebrate. Many people consider the holidays their favorite time of year. But for people who have complicated relationships with their family members, the holidays can be an incredibly stressful time. Maybe your cousin always makes fun of your outfits, or Uncle Larry consistently asks when you’re getting married.

You don’t have to dread gathering with family. Here are five ideas to help you manage complicated family dynamics during the holidays.

Give yourself space

When you don’t get along with your family, the idea of spending time with them over the holidays can feel overwhelming. That’s perfectly understandable. That’s why it’s important to set boundaries and create space for yourself. Sometimes, that means actual physical space, like getting a hotel room and not staying at your brother’s house. Even if your brother is hosting the holiday gathering, having a hotel to retreat to at the end of the day can give you peace.

Oprah Magazine also suggests, “Would you be more enthusiastic about a get-together if you planned to leave after no more than four hours? Or three? Two? One? Would you breathe easier if you rented a car so that you could get away without relying on relatives for transportation?” You can limit how long you stay at a holiday party. Also, waiting for someone else to leave can be particularly problematic, if you’ve hit your limit. So drive yourself or rent a car, if you have to. Just knowing you can leave when you want to can be a huge relief.

You don’t have to go everywhere and do everything

Maybe your mother-in-law invited you for Christmas, but you’ve also been invited to both of your parents’ houses, which means you’ve been asked to three places for Christmas. Or perhaps your uncle and sister are throwing a New Year’s Eve party. Going to 3 separate homes to celebrate a holiday means a lot of time in the car, navigating a complex schedule and trying to find the energy to celebrate three times. In other words, it’s too much. An invitation doesn’t mean you have to go. Yes, someone or more than one someone will likely be disappointed. But you don’t need to exhaust yourself trying to please everyone. Or maybe you’ve decided to stay home with your partner and kids for Hanukah this year. That’s okay, too. Choosing what is best for you and your immediate family is perfectly acceptable. 

Prepare for awkward conversations and leave when you need to

You probably know what to expect from your family by now. Your aunt always asks when you’re going to have kids, or your sister insists on talking about politics. If you know difficult topics will come up, you can prepare a response.  Self Magazine states, “For instance, if a family member body shames you just as you knew they would, you can say something like, ‘I appreciate your concern, but my weight is my business.’ Then change the subject.”

If you’re uncomfortable with the topic of conversation at the dinner table or your family has started arguing, it’s also perfectly acceptable to walk away from the situation. You could offer to clear the table, take out the trash, excuse yourself to the bathroom or say that it’s time to take the dog for a walk. You don’t have to participate in a family argument. Respect yourself and your boundaries, and don’t take the bait. 

You can let people know it’s time to go   

You might also be hosting the family gathering at your home. While that’s good for many reasons, it does make it harder to leave when you’re ready for the party to end. However, you don’t need to let your guests stay all night. It’s perfectly fine to tell your family you’re tired, and you’re ready to clean up. If no one takes the hint, start clearing the table, drinks or packaging up food to take home. You could also bring everyone their coats and say gently, “I’m tired, and I’m ready to go to bed. It’s been so fun! I can’t wait to do it again.”

Plan self-care activities

It might be easier to endure a holiday gathering with family, if you’re treating yourself afterward. You could book yourself a massage, plan a long walk, bring a good book, take a long bath or rewatch your favorite funny movie. Just schedule an activity that is separate from your family, so you have time for yourself to relax.

Holiday get-togethers with the family can be stressful, but there are ways to manage it. Give yourself space, don’t try to do everything, prepare for hard conversations, let people know when the night is over and plan some fun activities for yourself.