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Experts Told Us How Not to Become Violent with Family During the Holidays

Keep it light and monitor your drinking.
Family eats Thanksgiving dinner
Image by Lia Kantrowitz via Shutterstock

We know the holidays can be a volatile time, especially if your family has more in common with the Lannisters than the Cleavers. Between the forced cheer and the impossibly high expectations for everyone to get along, it’s enough to make you stress-eat an entire turkey (and fixins too!).

If you’re dealing with challenging people like an uncle with extreme political views or a sibling with the perpetual chip on their shoulder, then you've come to the right place. We talked to relationship experts, licensed therapists, and life coaches to see how to navigate thorny interactions during the holidays. So even if you can’t bow out of holiday celebrations altogether, their smart advice will at least make the experience more manageable. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.


Set boundaries and use “I” statements

Get clear on your triggers. Write them down and/or speak them aloud so you know exactly which behaviors feel difficult for you. Based on that knowledge, set your personal boundaries before you go. Make a plan to take care of yourself calmly and not let things escalate.

Avoid trying to teach a difficult relative how to behave differently. It’s OK to know your boundaries, to state them calmly, and to protect them. But always use “I” statements instead of making accusations. Subtly judging or trying to change your relative will only make you look passive-aggressive, or worse, aggressive. And that could ironically earn you the title of Difficult Family Member! - Tina Gilbertson, psychotherapist and author

Be upfront beforehand and assertive in the moment

Develop an idea of what you'd like to do differently this year from previous years. Process ways that you can respond to issues that seem commonplace with your family. Set reasonable expectations by identifying what would quantify as a good visit with your family.

When issues arise, be assertive instead of ignoring them. You have a greater chance of changing things when you address things at the moment, instead of going back and trying to talk through the issue. - Nedra Glover Tawwab, licensed clinical social worker

Sidestep heated conversations

Avoid willingly engaging in deep, heated, and personally meaningful conversations. Keep it at small talk if possible. Be cordial, but don't allow yourself to be baited into conversations requiring opinion or that bring up old memories.

Always have an alternative way home and place to stay (retreat to) if need be. Riding with others, upon whom you have to wait until they are ready to leave or go home, can leave one feeling powerless in a stressful situation. It's the same problem when it comes to accommodations (where you sleep if somewhere for multiple days). Plan accordingly; better safe than sorry! Make sure you know you are not "stuck" having to deal with or constantly avoid a difficult family member, simply because you have left yourself without an escape. Drive you own car/have alternative transportation to keep you with the power to leave whenever you feel like it, and to do so in an inconspicuous manner. Have alternative accommodations that will at least allow for you to have restful sleep and distance for the purpose of refueling if you plan to spend multiple days with family. Don't allow guilt (self-induced or otherwise) to push you beyond any boundaries that you have set for the day. - Dr. Rayvann Kee II , clinical psychologist and life coach


Be mindful of alcohol consumption

While you may think getting all tanked up on cheap red wine at Aunt Linda’s party is the best way to survive the holidays and deal with that annoying relative of yours, trust me, it’s not. After a few drinks, inhibitions loosen, and all those things you’ve always wanted to tell Uncle Harry will come pouring out. This holiday season, go easy on the booze, keep your tongue in cheek, and don’t give the family yet another reason to talk about you behind your back.

The holidays are really hard on a lot of people. And while we might think of it as a time for merriment and joy, for many, it’s not. It can be a painful reminder of how lonely or empty their life might be. So they lash out at anyone who is within earshot; and sometimes that anyone is you. What people say and do are about them, not you. Sometimes, just knowing this can help you let things roll off your back and be less reactive when you’re in a difficult family member’s company. So take a deep breath (or 100), step back, and be thankful for your family. Even if some of them make you crazy! - Cheryl Dillon, divorce coach at Equitable Mediation

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