Dealing with difficult family members over the holidays

Dealing with difficult family members over the holidays

It's the most wonderful time of the year… unless you have difficult family members that is, then you can literally cue the chaos.

All families argue from time to time but overall, happy, healthy ones generally find successful ways of working through their issues, forgiving and moving on, with the focus on everyone enjoying themselves and being as happy as possible. While these types of families are out spending time together, full of Christmas cheer and having fun, for others anxiety, trepidation and dread is mounting as the holidays draw near.

For those that fall into the latter group, the holidays mean time with family (or family-in-law) where the inevitable conflicts that always seem to arise are inescapable. Sometimes the conflict is purely due to personality clashes and differences in opinion, but more often than not, it's due to a single individual (or two).

These 'special' people, in their own unique way, always seem to do or say things that spark contention. They criticise or irritate others, manipulate everyone to ensure that they are the centre of attention, arrive late and expect everyone to wait patiently or are just never happy or satisfied with anything, ever. Nothing is ever their fault, they play the victim, everyone is always against them, or they are overly sensitive, have a short fuse and explode at the slightest, often unintended, upset… the list goes on and on. It's exhausting.

If you happen to be part of a family that has these types of toxic individuals, then going into hiding until after the holidays may seem like the most appealing approach, but this also means that you'll miss out on the joy of spending time with your other family members and may even cause them some disappointment and unintended pain. Not exactly a trade-off that embodies the Christmas spirit or makes you feel good now, is it?

Regardless of whether you're dealing with little family niggles or all out toxic individuals, why not try one of these coping strategies that will not only help you to keep the peace, but also your sanity.

WARNING: At times you will have to consciously practice being the bigger person, think of it as your gift to those you love 😉.

Dealing with the little family niggles that arise

1. Be Empathetic

Issues that spark conflict generally don't change, so you can probably already anticipate what is going to happen at your next family gathering. Run these scenarios through your head and practice calm, simple, level-headed responses that are based on understanding and empathy rather than defensiveness.

So, for example, if you're on a diet, know that someone will inevitably comment on you not being able to enjoy the full meal that was 'so tirelessly prepared' or offer you a second helping of pudding or tell you 'it's just one day, eating what you want won't hurt'. Instead of allowing these comments to annoy or anger you, defuse the situation by saying something like 'You know I'd love some [insert food here] but what I'd love more is to be healthy in the New Year and happy in my own skin. I'm sure you can understand that. What I can and can't eat doesn't diminish how much I love being with you, so let's not let it affect this day'. 

2. Stop things before they gain momentum

Again, this involves anticipating what may happen and preparing yourself ahead of time. If you have different views from your family or practice an alternate lifestyle to the way in which you were raised, realise that it may cause a little hurt as it may be perceived as criticism. In other instances, your family may just be trying to deal with their own emotions about the situation and not everyone does that eloquently or with tact.

Once you've prepared for topics that may arise, make a conscious effort to shut any topics that usually cause conflict down as soon as they start. If you no longer practice a family tradition that you grew up with, for example, your kids weren't taught to believe in Santa Claus but you were, know that you may be accused of 'taking the magic out of Christmas', or if you don't practice the same religion as you grew up in, that you may told that you're 'abandoning the faith' (or worse).

Instead of becoming defensive and shouting back something like ‘Well at least I'm not propagating lies', breathe and rather say, ‘I do value the times I had as a child, they were magical and special, but as an adult I have a different view, let's agree to disagree and not spoil the holiday in debate, we all love each other and that's what matters'.

Then change the topic to something pleasant or make a polite excuse to leave the room (‘the bathroom calls' is always an easy one) and move out of earshot so you don't hear any follow-up comments that could fan the flames of fury. Wait a reasonable amount of time for the conversation topic to change (you may need to catch up on some reading in said bathroom) before returning. Make sure that you don't vent or do some silent screaming somewhere (even though you really, REALLY want to), as this actually reinforces the anger you feel. Instead, focus on something positive that makes you happy and move on.

3. Let it go

Resolve to not let anything bother you on the day and realise that much of what people say has to do with their own issues and insecurities rather than you. Justify each person's actions to yourself – like 'Oh gran is just old-fashioned, in her days times were different, so I'll give her a pass' or 'Aunty Sue always says mean things when she drinks, it's sad but this is only one day, lucky I don't have to see her often'. This will help you to let anything upsetting go. Practice forgiveness and realise that it's more about setting yourself free than it is them.

4. Buddy up

If you have a particular conflict with a specific family member, ensure that you have someone close that understands the issue and is able to act as a buffer between you and that person without exacerbating the situation by choosing your side or defending you. Agree beforehand that their job is to deflect and change the subject when hurtful comments are made or contentious issues arise.

5. Avoid the 'drink to make it bearable' strategy

Yes, drinking to cope may seem like the way to go when faced with difficult family members, but as tempting as it is, it can actually just make things so much worse. Excessive alcohol consumption retards your ability to engage your filter, choose your words carefully and not get defensive. This is a recipe for disaster that may end up with you saying and doing things you'll regret. What's more, it could actually end up causing you to be viewed as 'the difficult family member'.

Drunk uncle

Dealing with toxic family members

Family niggles aside, there are some families that have difficult family members and there are those with toxic family members. There is a big difference. Difficult family members may have some of the traits we'll mention below, but toxic people exhibit these on a whole new level. These traits and/or behavioural patterns affect everyone around them, but don't seem to phase the toxic individual at all.

One or more of the following traits or behavioural patterns may be exhibited:

  • No filter: These family members say what they want, when they want, with no regard for anyone else. They make insensitive, hurtful and/or annoying comments on a consistent basis. For example, every time they see you, they comment, and not in a loving or positive way, on your weight, skin, hair, marital status (or lack thereof) or how unphotogenic you are without realising the comments are hurtful and make you feel embarrassed when said loudly in front of others.
  • A short fuse: At the slightest sign of an issue or undesirable circumstance they have fits of rage, temper tantrums and outbursts that are disproportionate to the situation at hand. This often escalates, goes way off topic and may be used as an excuse to bring up past offences.
  • They suck the joy out of everything and everyone: Being around them is exhausting, draining and makes you feel nervous, fearful, anxious, unhappy, unfulfilled.
  • Their way is the only way: They have rigid opinions and you are not entitled to yours, they are suspicious, accusatory without cause, quick to argue and aggressive. They seem to thrive on causing contention, even at the expense of the family's peace and happiness.
  • Me, me, me: These individuals need to be the centre of attention and act angrily and irrationally when they feel they are being left out of anything (planning, conversations, chopping carrots, you name it).
  • They make you feel as though you're on an emotional rollercoaster: These family members have a very sweet side, but it can turn just as quickly into nastiness, snide comments, criticism or just being downright infuriating and exhibiting many of the above-mentioned traits. They are master manipulators that cleverly manoeuvre you into agreeing to things you don't really want to do out of a sense of obligation, which makes you feel a little angry. Then they switch back to nice and you then feel guilty about begrudging them their request, and this leaves you feeling even more upset. The cycle goes on and on.
  • Moody: Those closest to these types of people need to continually gauge what type of mood they're in to determine what the day will be like. The phrase ‘walking on eggshells' is most apt and things can change at any minute. The family's overall mood and how many anyone can enjoy the holidays, or a particular event is determined by this person's mood.
  • Overly entitled: These family members seemingly have delusions of being royalty and always expect special treatment from everyone else, often dictating where to go, what to do etc. to suit their desires, often at the expense of everyone else.
  • Grudge collectors: These individuals draw out arguments far longer than they should persist. What should be resolved in minutes takes hours and days and even thereafter certain triggers seem to dredge up past offences. They hold grudges and continue to collect on these at every opportunity.
  • Victims and wound collectors: These people are similar to grudge collectors, but they are generally more passive-aggressive and collect hurts, wounds and offenses that they use to play the victim to get attention and manipulate the family for years to come. Everything is unfair, they always get the raw deal, it's not their fault – these are the justifications for every form of misbehaviour and the cycle continues for years, with past offences and slights being brought up at every opportunity.

Toxic family members

Coping strategies when dealing with toxic family members

While we all have some toxic tendencies from time to time and at certain times or in some situations, if a person exhibits these types of behaviours on a consistent basis, over a long period of time, regardless of the circumstances, it's safe to say that you are not imagining things. If these traits have been lovingly pointed out to them in the past and they have disregarded them without second thought, or without them seeking help to resolve the underlying issues, you may have to resign yourself to just dealing with the person in question.

Before we get into coping strategies to do just that, it is important to remember that many of the above-mentioned traits develop due to unresolved emotional and psychological issues that originated from events (whether real or imagined) that caused deep hurt, feelings of rejection and being unloved. Others may simply be present because the individual's behaviour was not corrected consistently during childhood and adolescent development.

In those whose behaviour stems from deep hurt, rejection and feeling unloved, addressing issues without the help of a trained professional can actually exacerbate the situation. This is because the old feelings of hurt and rejection are triggered and compounded by the 'latest offense', sending the toxic individual into a downward spiral that often makes them act out even more.

Those with behavioural issues often assimilate these behaviours as being personality traits, and therefore feel you are insulting who they are instead of realising that who they are is separate from the way that they act. Again, this can be addressed more effectively with help from a therapist or counsellor.

Regardless of the cause of the toxic behaviour and the fact that these individuals would benefit from psychological counselling to address the root of the problem, this cannot be seen as an excuse for their behaviour. While getting through the holidays with these types of family members is considerably more challenging, there are still things you can do. Some will take pre-planning with key family members, not in a nasty, conspiratorial way, but as a strategic plan to ensure peace, happiness and the best possible holidays for all.

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Present a united front: Prior to an event, get everyone to agree on the topics that have triggered divisive events and arguments in the past or have the potential to do so at present, will not be discussed under any circumstances. Assign calmer individuals to act as ‘buffers' and defuse situations by changing topics or offering a compliment where criticism is given by the toxic individual.
  2. Set boundaries for what you will and will not tolerate as a family. If anyone crosses these boundaries, they need to be aware that there will be consequences. If any family member consistently ruins family events, they should be informed that they will not be invited to any more until they address their issues and their behaviour changes. Stick to this and if necessary, act on it so that it is a warning that stands and not an idle threat.
  3. Remove triggers: If something usually triggers the toxic individual's behaviour, remove it from the environment as far as possible. So, for example, if alcohol is an issue, commit to an alcohol free holiday, sure it may not be as jolly, but it's better than having to deal with drama and fighting. If the family member shows up intoxicated and gets out of hand, call them a cab and send them on their way.
    4. Keep to the schedule: If lunch is scheduled for 2pm, start regardless of whether everyone is there or not. Emotionally unstable toxic personalities are renowned for showing up late to make an entrance, be the centre of attention, control and dominate the gathering. Do not allow for this to happen.
  4. Ignore bad behaviour: Agree beforehand that the day will be a happy, enjoyable one and that any behaviour by the difficult family member will simply be ignored, and not given the audience they crave. This can take some resolve as tears and tantrums may follow, but generally if they are not indulged, the situation can be defused.
  5. Get off the chessboard: Remember that family time is not therapy time and if the difficult individual tries to draw you into a drama, remind them as much. If they continue, lovingly offer to make an appointment with a professional that you will attend with them to resolve the issue at a more appropriate venue and time. Be loving but firm and then remain silent and don't play the game by responding to provacative statements, most who thrive on drama will turn WHATEVER you say against you. If you don't give them anything to use as ammunition, and no one commiserates with them, the provocation and drama will usually die down.
  6. Know when it's time for them or you to go: If a toxic person's behaviour escalates to the point that it becomes abusive or violent and is a danger to anyone else, regardless of whether they are family or not, it's time either you or them to leave (depending on where the event is being held). If the event is not at a venue where the rest of the family can leave, and the person in question will not leave of their own volition, it may be time to get the authorities involved. While this is often an unthinkable action, and especially around the holidays it may be necessary for the safety of everyone else. It is never okay for someone to abuse you or make you a victim.

Family is family, we don't get to choose them, but we can learn to deal with them. Yes, it may take practice and more than one or two holidays and occasions of trial and error, but don't give up until you've exhausted every possible avenue to find a happy, harmonious way of spending time together.

In a perfect world, we'd all get the happy ending we so deeply desire, but if you don't, at least you will know that a decision to stay away in future is really warranted. Happy holidays.