Difficult relatives may make the holidays more complicated whether the gathering is of the traditional sort with people around a table, or even if it's a virtual affair—difficult people make everything more, well, difficult. But when you know you’re going to be interacting with people who may cause friction or discomfort, being prepared is the first and maybe the most important step. Fortunately, there are some great ways to handle these challenges and we've got you covered. Try these.
Staying grounded and not getting defensive is probably the best way to reduce the stress you can feel around difficult relatives. Whatever keeps you grounded and centered may help you avoid conflict. Focus on your own body and stay within the immediate moment. Practice some deep breathing techniques, repeat a mantra, meditate quietly for a few minutes, or simply take a short walk—whatever it takes. Also, pay close attention to how you’re responding to others. If you remain relaxed and unfazed, you won’t give them the reaction they’re looking for and your lack of irritation might be just the thing to help diffuse the situation. Chill people encourage others to remain chill.
You can’t change people and you can’t “fix” them, either. If you’re hoping to make them see the error of their ways, that probably won’t be effective. Few people truly change much except over a very long time. Instead, you’re likely to cause upset and frustration for everyone involved as others feel judged or looked down upon. Instead, focus on the things you like about your family members, and try to forgive them their faults. No one is perfect, and they are probably doing the best they can with what they have. Practicing unconditional acceptance of others is challenging, but well worth it in the long run.
There are a few topics that are just triggering for a lot of people. You may want to stay away from politics and religion, for example. But any more, there are almost more landmines than there are safe spaces to step. So keep a list of topics to avoid and keep the talk light and focused on the present.
It may also help to be on the lookout for topics you know are specific to your difficult relative. If they recently lost their job, for example, avoid bringing up that topic to prevent any negative reactions. If they bring it up first, however, respond with sympathy and compassion instead of judgment and you'll be on your way to a smoother time of it.
It’s not a good idea to censor people if you want them to feel welcome in your presence during the holiday season. And sometimes it turns out that the most difficult people really just want to be heard. Allowing people the freedom to express their feelings might go a long way toward keeping the peace and it may even help you build a better long-term relationship with the person. You'll also feel better because you let family members be themselves and even if they're difficult, that's a gift to give someone. Ask them what they are feeling, and listen when they express themselves to you. You don’t have to agree, but you can help them feel heard.
Whatever a difficult family member may say during the holiday season, you should know that it's generally not about you even when it may seem like it is. Even if the comment is directed your way, it usually comes from something that person is dealing with or feeling insecure about. It can be hard not to take things personally, but seeing comments as a reflection of the person making the comment instead of on you can make it easier to let it go or ignore it for the sake of the holiday get-together.
Keep in mind that handling difficult family members doesn't mean being a doormat or allowing something completely unacceptable to take place. It's more about taking back your power to react in a healthy way. Its about keeping your own sense of peace and not allowing yourself to be dragged into a conflict because it's healthier and more peaceful for you not to. In this way you can keep your sense of peace and let the holidays flow instead of having them ruined by someone else's poor manners, lack of civility, or inability to be kind. The holidays can be a great time for families when they all get along. But if getting along well isn't possible, you can at least make your holidays easier by handling difficult family members in the best way possible to foster peace and goodwill. And that's really what the holidays are supposed to be about.