Difficult relatives at Christmas can really take the shine off the festive season – if you let them. Let’s be honest, we all have that one relation who is really good at pushing all the wrong buttons. Whether they are over-bearing and controlling, overly-critical and self-righteous, or confrontational and challenging, I expect you can easily think of at least one relation whose presence at Christmas will only serve to heighten your anxiety, before I can say ‘mince pie’.
There’s Auntie Sue commenting on your weight – again, your mother-in-law’s constant narrative as to ‘her way‘ of cooking the Christmas dinner, and the boozy uncle whose opinions and language get stronger as the day goes on. Sound familiar?
We might come across these types of people in our day-to-day lives, but with family, it’s different. We are often obligated to spend time with them, even if we don’t really like them that much (I know, I said it!).
So, how will you cope with that difficult relative at Christmas this year? I’m sure it’s crossed your mind already. Let me guide you through my expert tips for handling those awkward relations so that you can protect yourself and your boundaries and ultimately reduce your anxiety and enjoy Christmas!
My top tips for managing difficult relatives at Christmas
1. A little psychological planning
Don’t allow yourself to enter into a family gathering with the anticipation of it being stressful. Change your attitude by engaging in activities that can reduce your anxiety. For example, practise mindfulness, do some yoga or take a walk before you attend the family gathering. Also, call to mind the qualities you do like in these people, rather than focusing on those you don’t. You’ll walk into that gathering with a more relaxed and positive mindset, which will help you to be more level-headed and tolerant of their behaviour.
You know this already, but it’s worth bringing it to the forefront. Gratitude goes a long way towards easing our anxiety by remembering what we truly value: having a family to spend Christmas with, a hot meal to enjoy and a roof over our heads.
3. Everything in moderation
Set your own limits as to how much time you want to spend with your family. If you’ve been invited to stay for four days, but you feel more comfortable with two, that’s ok. Allow yourself to tell a little white lie and make a plan that lets you protect yourself and stick to the boundaries you’ve set.
4. Recognise the triggers
If there are certain scenarios that you know will trigger an uncomfortable situation, plan for them in advance. You can choose to either discuss potential issues calmly with that person in advance, or you can resolve to deliberately let things go for the time that you are together. If it’s alcohol that triggers a heated debate, limit your intake so your response to situations is not overly-emotional. You’ll have the presence of mind to bite your tongue, calm down and respond when you’re not in a hyper-aroused state. It’s all about you managing your own boundaries as to what you are willing to tolerate.
5. Be direct and assertive
You’ve thought about what the triggers might be, so – in advance, and in a calm place – practise a script that you’ve rehearsed, so you’re focused in your response. You may even choose to ’agree to disagree‘ in order to avoid an argument or heated discussion.
6. Take control of the situation
Avoid the opportunity for difficult relatives at Christmas to take over. Control the conversation by asking people about themselves and what’s new, or perhaps co-ordinate a game or activity that means you won’t be left alone with that particular family member. Surround yourself with the people you get along with, but if that difficult relative is persistent, it’s ok to politely excuse yourself and remove yourself from the situation.
7. Choose your topics wisely
There are undoubtedly topics of conversation within all households that will trigger a heated debate or social awkwardness. Whether it’s politics, religion, your marital status or your personal beliefs, if there are certain subjects you don’t want to get into, you need to plan ahead to manage that. Can you make it clear in advance that you don’t wish to get into that particular topic? Could you enlist a sibling or ally to help pacify the situation? If not, try to close down the conversation with a polite, “we’ll have to agree to disagree on that”, or simply excuse yourself. Again, this is about setting your boundaries as to what you are willing to tolerate.
8. I’ve got your back
Is there someone you can confide in to help you manage these situations? Or someone who empathises with how you’re feeling, who can step in as an ally? Having someone by your side will help give you the confidence to stick to the boundaries you’ve set for yourself.
9. It’s not me, it’s you
It’s really important to remember that you can’t change other people, but you can change your own behaviour to protect yourself. However, other people’s behaviours do have an impact on us so enlist some of my tips to help prepare yourself. If you’ve removed yourself from the situation, you need to centre yourself again. Try positive self-talk, meditation, mindful colouring or take a short walk.
10. You don’t need to fix it
I’m going to leave you with some sage advice. You are not responsible for other people’s behaviour and you don’t need to fix it. When we reunite with family, we often revert to type, for example, the older sibling who parents the younger ones. This is perfectly normal. However, don’t feel like you need to step in to defend the bullets to avoid social awkwardness. Have your needs met in a way that is mature, without falling into the default family dynamic. Do what you need to do to put your boundaries in place to protect yourself.
On that note, I wish you all a Merry Christmas!