Dealing With ‘Challenging’ Family Members

Reduce your holiday stress with these 5 tips for dealing with people with whom you may share blood… but not much else

The holidays are often a time of getting together with family members. And for some this means spending time with people with whom you may share blood but not much else. Whether it is Uncle Ted making inappropriate comments or cousin Silvia who will not stop talking about how horrible her life is — you CAN not only survive but even thrive this holiday season. No, you are not going to change them. So don’t even make that your goal. People don’t change unless they want to (despite of how much you may want them to).

Try these 5 tips to dealing with “challenging” family members:

Don’t personalize. Passive aggressive remarks about your life, negative comments about the food or any statement that makes you feel lousy — try not to personalize it. Unhappy people tend to have unpleasant views of the world that they just love to share. Rather than accept their negativity, try to remember this is their issue. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” That means that, regardless of what others say or do, it only hurts if we internalize and believe what they are communicating. Think of their comments like a coat they are offering to you. YOU get to chose if you put it one (and feel lousy) or drop it on the floor.

Choose your mantra wisely. Rather than soak up someone else’s opinion of you, have your own mantra that filters them out. For example, if Aunt Betty tends to make comments about your weight and that is something that you struggle with, then you decide how you are going to interpret this. Instead of beating yourself up about when she says, “well, there is just more of you to love this year” or some other condescending statement, repeat to yourself, “I am proud of the steps I am taking to be healthier.” Choose whatever statement you need to hear that will help you feel better about yourself and reduce your stress. Having a more encouraging mantra will help you feel much better.

Need any help? Sure, doing the dishes may not be your favorite, but they probably aren’t annoying Edna’s favorite either. And that means if you are helping out in the kitchen, Edna will not be in there with you. Look for ways to help out and focus on how it feels to assist the host. Remember doing kind acts and helping others is a vital part of what I call the Happiness Prescription and that, in and of itself, will help boost your positive emotions.

Control your time. Being with challenging individuals is easier the less time you have to spend with them. So look for ways to limit the duration of your interactions. For example, rather than staying three days at your in-laws, announce this year that you can only make it for two. You can share an honest reason such as “we are helping out a friend who is going through a tough time” but don’t lie about an event. (That can lead to more stress.) If you can’t limit the days you are together, then look for ways to limit the amount of time. For example, go for a walk everyday or chose to be a tourist in whatever town you are in. You do have choices, so take advantage of them.

Watch triggers. Certain events can serve as catalysts to… unpleasantness an even disaster. So figure out what those triggers are and take the appropriate steps to reduce or eliminate them. For example, are their certain topics of conversation that inevitably result in tension? Politics? Religion? Bringing up something that happened in the past? If so, then stay away from them. Better yet, agree as a family to refrain from bringing them up. Or maybe a trigger is alcohol — for you or your family members. Sure, alcohol may help reduce your stress on one level, but it can sometimes lead to more issues, such as you or someone else making inappropriate comments. You may want to stick with non-alcoholic apple cider this year.

Want to be a happier you this holiday season? Try out these steps to reducing holiday stress when you are with “challenging” family members. And let us know how they work for you. Leave a comment sharing what you do to achieve holiday stress relief.

Elizabeth LombardoElizabeth Lombardo, PhD, is a psychologist, physical therapist and author of the bestselling book A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness. She has been quoted by some of today’s top media outlets including CNN, MSNBC, NPR, Woman’s Day, Glamour, Self, Woman’s World, Health and Real Simple. Visit for more information. And order A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness today!