While the holidays can be a time of great family togetherness, they can also provoke stress when dealing with difficult relatives. In fact, some people find holiday gatherings with family so daunting, that they’d choose to spend a Thanksgiving or Christmas alone, rather than with some relatives. There are ways to help make the challenge of dealing with difficult relatives a little easier, although it is rarely completely painless.
One way to rise to the challenge of holiday gatherings with difficult relatives is to set firm limits about what you will or won’t discuss. For example, you might be going through a painful divorce and know your family will want a blow-by-blow account of the marriage and its demise. One can often diffuse such inquiries by saying something like “Oh, that’s such negative stuff. Today I’d just like to focus on all the things I’m thankful for,“ or, “Thanks for asking me. I know you’ll respect my wish to enjoy Christmas (Thanksgiving, Hanukkah), without having to get into all that.”
You can often diffuse questions without insulting difficult relatives. When you bring the statement back to your wishes and desires, you set clear boundaries. Another way to set boundaries is by planning on a set number of hours to spend with your difficult relatives. You might, for instance, choose to spend part of your day volunteering at a shelter and serving other people Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. This way you minimize exposure to the relatives that try your patience.
One problem compounding the challenges of dealing with difficult relatives is that many people still have an idealized picture of how a family should be. When a family is not the Rockwellian picture of harmony and bliss, we often hope for a family we’ll never get. Trying to force difficult relatives into a mold they will never fit is stressful and mentally exhausting. It also makes seeing relatives more challenging since they cannot live up to your expectations.
It's better to accept that your difficult relatives are likely not going to change, no matter how much you would wish them to. Pointing out the faults of difficult relatives will probably have no effect whatsoever on their behavior, so choosing not to engage a rude relative may help keep tension to a minimum. It also helps to consider difficult relatives from a humorous light. If you can see these trying folks as somehow humorous examples of how not to live, your own mood may lighten.
If you are playing host, you may be able to diffuse the impact of difficult relatives by padding your guest list with genuine friends or the relatives you really do respect and honor. This way, your interaction with difficult relatives is split with spending time interacting with the people you like.
Another strategy for avoiding relative overload is to assist or lead the meal preparation. If you prepare an elaborate dinner, your attention in the kitchen may be required regularly. This is one way to minimize contact with challenging people, while still feeding your family a nice meal.
Interacting with children instead of the adults may also be a way to diffuse the tension caused by difficult relatives. Get the kids a board game and play it with them during the celebration. Write them a play they can perform for the whole family, or teach them a special song. Children usually enjoy getting the extra attention, and you will be distracted from the adults who would otherwise vex you.
Finally, plan a day soon after the holiday as a reward for getting through the holiday’s challenges. Schedule yourself a massage, a nice lunch with a friend or a mini-vacation. It can help to visualize your reward when difficult relatives are driving you nuts at a family gathering.