How can I Deal with Difficult Relatives Around the Holidays?

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  • Last Modified Date: 28 August 2019
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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.


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Post 7

I have noticed that some relatives who see each other all the time are not very difficult among themselves. It's those of us who come for visits once or twice a year who get a lot of the "business". The difficult ones have had plenty of time to work up their list of questions and opinions for the rest of us. One thing that might help is to invest more time throughout the year with those relatives, letting them think they're getting the latest gossip straight from the horse's mouth. In other words, throw them a bone and they won't be so hungry at Thanksgiving.

Post 6

@Purple spark: Let's get something straight. Religion has absolutely nothing to do with Thanksgiving! There is no "reason for the season" related to Thanksgiving other than celebrating harvest, community and thankfulness. It isn't part of Christmas. I wish people would stop cramming Jesus beliefs down everyone's throats. You can have your Christ in Christmas, but keep your Christian paws off of Thanksgiving, because they don't belong there. It's not about religion!

Post 5

I also wanted to say that there is no need to deal with difficult or unpleasant relatives when you can choose to stay home and enjoy your holiday. Why would you want to subject yourself to a dose of guilt along with the turkey? Not for me, and it is the best decision I have ever made. Now instead of dreading seeing certain people at Thanksgiving, I look forward to TG and enjoy the day immensely.

Post 4

I have done the big family Thanksgiving and I have done Thanksgiving at my own home with my spouse. All I can say is, skipping the eight hour drive the day before Thanksgiving and dealing with pushy and mean spirited relatives isn't for me or my spouse. We have stayed home and made our own traditional Thanksgiving and it is always bliss! We have also gone out with friends for Thanksgiving dinner and it has been fantastic as well.

We both love to stay home most. It is cozy. We have the fireplace on, we are making deviled eggs and other fun appetizers before the dinner. We usually have a glass of champagne or some wine. It is a blast. I highly recommend skipping the long drive and the extended family nonsense and do a cozy Thanksgiving at home. It is the best. No drama. Lots of deviled eggs!

Post 3

@purplespark: Thanks for the post. I totally agree with you. You and I are on the same page. If I could get my mother-in-law on that same page, I would be doing good!

Post 2

I don't mean to impose my religious beliefs on anyone, but I feel obligated to say this:

I know that it is very difficult to tolerate unruly family members but if we try to focus on the "reason for the season", we can get through it.

If you look at the sacrifices that were made for us, it makes the task of tolerating "difficult company" not so significant.

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