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5 Ways to Survive the Holidays with Difficult Family Members

Heading home for the holidays this year? Is there a particular family member who rubs you the wrong way, causes drama, or is just downright annoying, mean, or offensive? Do you want some coping skills that are healthier than heading straight for the bottle of wine? Below are five tips for handling challenging situations so they don’t ruin your holiday.

  1. Clarify your values.
    Do you value honesty, fairness, kindness, support for others, or social justice (or something else)? It is important to think about what matters to you, because you are responsible for your own actions as it relates to this person and situation. Sometimes our values can conflict, so it is a good idea to clarify what you care about most. At the end of the day, you want to be able to know deep down that you handled the situation the way that matters to you, not everyone else.

  2. Be true to yourself.
    Set acceptable boundaries and limits. When that boundary is crossed, it is time to practice giving assertive feedback: “Hey, I don’t appreciate it when you [fill in the blank]. Please stop.” This may result in the person escalating, yelling, ridiculing you, crying, or getting upset. Fortunately, none of these reactions is your problem. Remember, you are simply calling out a behavior that you want to see change because it has crossed a line and you’re letting them know that. Whether the person can take feedback is up to them.
  3. Provide feedback in the moment.
    If someone makes a comment you don’t appreciate, it is much easier to tell them about it right after it happens than two hours later when they have forgotten, don’t care, or are inebriated. You can make your feedback concise and to the point, and that way you don’t have to sit there stewing over it for hours on end after the fact.
  4. Practice your empathy skills, or move on.
    If it’s simply a person whom you don’t really like, but they’re not doing anything offensive, then you have a couple of options. First, you can take the opportunity to practice being around people you don’t like and sitting with discomfort. You can practice your empathy skills and try to find a way to connect to this person, or empathize with their situation.

    Second, you can take the opportunity to talk more in depth with everyone else at the event. No one assigned you to be the person’s new best friend, so don’t take on more responsibility than you have to. A great way to avoid someone can be by staying busy helping prepare the meal or offering to clean up afterward.

  5. Use humor to lighten up the situation.
    Find something about the person that you can tease him or her about. Make light-hearted jokes about yourself or others. It’s hard to be annoyed with someone if you are in a good mood, laughing, or otherwise talking about fun, funny, or happy topics. Keep the conversation light.

Follow these five steps and you will have a more enjoyable holiday. Remember, there’s no single way to handle difficult family and friends, so find the way that aligns with your values and be true to yourself.

Grumpy woman photo available from Shutterstock

5 Ways to Survive the Holidays with Difficult Family Members

David Shanley

Dr. David Shanley has his Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Denver. He works in private practice, specializing in adults with anxiety disorders, social anxiety, and OCD. More information can be found on his website at

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APA Reference
Shanley, D. (2018). 5 Ways to Survive the Holidays with Difficult Family Members. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 4 Dec 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.