How to Survive Family During the Holidays

The Holidays

The holidays are rapidly approaching. This means family gatherings, parties, visits and stress. Here are some tips to make those interactions positive, healthy, and more enjoyable.


Conflictual Issues

  • Do you have a conflict with a family member that is unresolved?  If it can wait (and it probably can), then wait to address it.  Don’t use the holidays as an opportunity to address it.
  • If you rarely see each other, is it necessary to address at all? 
  • Focusing on tension affects everyone else negatively, not just the people with issues. 
  • If you use gatherings as opportunities to force confrontation, don’t be surprised if in the future scheduling conflicts arise.  Bringing others into your conflict will decrease the likelihood of working through it positively.  People become more stubborn when their pride gets involved. 

Defensive or Hostile Comments

  • Recognize that when you feel like you just “have to” say something in response, it’s a pretty reliable sign that you should be quiet.
  •  When angry or defensive (which are often close to the same feeling), you are less likely respond deliberately or thoughtfully.  The more urgent it seems to “set the record straight” or take a jab at the other person, the more likely you are to escalate the conflict.
  • In a discussion, every time either person makes a hostile or defensive remark, the odds of a positive outcome decrease by 50%.  If you go back and forth that way three times, the likelihood of the relationship improving is less than 2%. 


Small Doses

  • Does the length of your visit tend to drain or overwhelm you?  Does the idea of sitting in a vacation house or relatives’ home for hours make your skin crawl?  Small doses can be easier to manage. 
  • Give yourself time to breaks.  Plan several things you can do on your own, with your spouse, or with a friend to get time away when it’s needed. 
  • Offering to run errands for them will discourage negative responses.  It’s more difficult to complain about someone helping you than it is if they are taking time for themselves. 

Tagging Out

  • Do you often get stuck in conversations you hate?  Do you get stuck spending time with particular people you struggle to get along with? 
  • Come up with a way to subtly let your spouse know you would like them to help you get out of a conversation or being the focus of family members. 
  • Your spouse probably doesn’t mind running interference for you, and would much prefer rescuing you to your falling into a bad mood.  For instance, any reference to the neighbor would work. 

“Did you remember to give the Ann (the neighbor) the key before weleft?” 

“Did Ann get a hold of you the other day?”

Preemptively Directing to Positive

  •  Does a relative manage to consistently push the conversation into negative or conflictual subjects?  Do you feel stuck in activities you find miserable? 
  • Think ahead of time about positive subjects and activities you can steer them into to preempt or redirect negative topics or activities. 
  • There’s probably some family history that you don’t know, or maybe some subject you’d genuinely be interested in learning about from them.  Take the conversation there. 
  • If you don’t like sitting and talking until awkwardness hits, go for a walk or do something active. 

Deflecting and Redirecting

  • Do you have intrusive relatives who make the most of pressing for information you don’t want to give or wanting to review all the things they don’t like about you (or someone else)? 
  • As interesting as you are, most people find themselves more interesting.  Try responding to an uncomfortable question by not responding, and abruptly “remembering” that really exciting thing you wanted to ask them about themselves.  The recent achievement, purchase, relationship, etc. 
  • Often, they’d rather receive attention and praise than attack someone else (that can always wait till later). 

“Hi,thanks for deciding your family is important this year and”–“Oh yeah, I’vebeen waiting to ask you how you (got the promotion, found the new spouse, shotthat huge deer, found that cool vacation house)!  That’s awesome!”


  • Does the relative react negatively to being told no or setting boundaries?  Do they relentlessly pressure you to follow their opinion? 
  • Try noting their “concern” for you appreciatively, stating what your decision/position is, and thank them for having taken the time to think about you. 
  • A positive-negative-positive statement is harder to be offended by than just stating the negative.  If they took the time to think about it, you must be important to them!

“You aren’t strict enough with your kids, they just walk all over you.”

“Huh, you’re really worried about how they treat me.  I’m fine with the way they relate to me.  I appreciate your taking the time to thinkabout it.  It’s nice to know you want usto get along well.”

                -rinse and repeat

Caution:  It’s easy to come across as sarcastic, so being genuine is important!

Reflecting and Growing

  • If nothing else, experience handling difficult people and relationships is an opportunity to try out different, hopefully more effective skills. 
  • If you consistently dislike a situation, reflect on your usual response and try something else.  
  • Paying attention to what gets under your skin is a way to identify what in yourself could use some attention.  We reflexively react when we perceive danger.  Threats are not just physical. 
  • Our identity, beliefs, and priorities can be threatened as well, and the reaction tends to be very similar.  Paying attention to your own reaction creates an alternative to getting lost in the reaction and acting without intention. 
  • Ethan Hawley said, “The only person offended by being called a son of a bitch is one who’s not sure about his mother, but how do you insult Albert Einstein?” 
  • Why are you impacted by that particular person in that specific way?  What are you trying to make happen, or trying to keep from happening?  Internal reactions can be hard to put into words, but if you can’t articulate them, you probably don’t understand them.
  • If relatives at gatherings regularly get you upset, they are giving you lots of opportunities to figure the reactions out.  If nothing else, you can learn about who you are and what’s important to you. 
Andrew Hurley
Andrew Hurley

Andrew Hurley has spent the last 15 years as a lpc, specializing in marriage and family therapy, addiction and holistic therapy. He is a veteran of 20 years of martial family holiday events and visits. Hurley Counseling is in Mobile and Fairhope serving adolescents, adults and families. �

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