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How To Survive Spending The Holidays With Difficult Relatives

Don’t hate, celebrate with these handy tips.
If gramps is refusing to stop talking Trump at your family dinner and it's getting your blood boiling, read on.
RgStudio via Getty Images
If gramps is refusing to stop talking Trump at your family dinner and it's getting your blood boiling, read on.

We love the holidays. We fear the holidays. Extended family get-togethers and eggnog-fuelled Christmas parties can be festive, but they can also be tricky for anyone navigating relationships with difficult family members and/or friends.

To keep the peace this season, we've gathered some tips from experts to help deal with fractious folks who tend to make the holiday season oh so dreadful.

"Seeing some family members over the holidays can elicit social allergies, which occur when people's annoying, noxious habits make our skin crawl," Dr. Jamie Gruman, professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Guelph, told HuffPost Canada.

Gruman doesn't mince words. Neither does Dr. Sherrie Campbell, who is a psychologist, marriage and family therapist, and author of the book, But It's Your Family.... Campbell notes that toxic behaviour can ramp up during the holidays because it's a time of year when difficult folks have their largest audiences and "when they can gain manipulative control over their family members."

"They're famous for playing games and pitting one family member against another just for sport," she says. "Holidays are when they thirst for being the centre of attention; they will do anything to get that, even if it means acting out in irrational and negative ways. When or if confronted, they will claim the role of the innocent victim and that they are simply being misunderstood."

Watch: Top ways to deal with difficult family members at the holidays. Story continues below.

Toxic-olgy reports

Toronto psychotherapist Diviya Lewis cautions against reacting harshly to difficult people, if possible, noting that we can all behave in a toxic manner at times.

"When certain actions such as being manipulative, selfish, dramatic, needy, critical or judgmental become a norm, we might feel like someone is a toxic person," she says. "But many times, these actions emerge from a place of deep pain, sadness, neglect, abuse or trauma. And we can all experience this."

Gruman adds that some people can be difficult to deal with because they have an underlying need they are trying to satisfy. He suggests trying to identify this need in order to help them move past their dissatisfaction. The prof notes that doing so can help change this behaviour, enabling difficult people to become more tolerable.

If that doesn't work, he has a threefold strategy for dealing with difficult people: explore, execute and exit.

Exploring is about considering ways to navigate the stress of socializing with people you'd rather avoid, and considering the reasons people engage in the offensive habits you find so distasteful.

Execute involves implementing tactics you've identified in the exploration stage.

"For example, if in stage 1 [explore] you diagnose that Aunt Lily constantly goes on about irrelevant topics because she's seeking validation, during the execution stage you can supply her with the support she's looking for and quiet her unpleasant behaviour," he says.

Exit is about limiting your exposure to the toxic environment. For instance, you can arrive late or leave early to limit your contact with the "allergens."

Sometimes avoiding arguments is the best route.
AntonioGuillem via Getty Images
Sometimes avoiding arguments is the best route.

Bound to boundaries

Lewis recommends deciding how you'll limit your interactions with difficult people prior to a holiday engagement. For example, can you exchange pleasantries and move on? If your interactions with these folks cannot be limited, she stresses creating safe and healthy boundaries, and to recognize your internal red flags when someone is close to crossing those boundaries, or has already crossed them.

"Sometimes partners or significant others can be helpful here, and you can create a visual or physical sign (e.g., a hand squeeze) that will bring you back into the present moment if you or your partner notices someone might be getting under your skin," Lewis says.

She also recommends determining what your triggers are and recognizing what happens in your body when you feel triggered.

"Our bodies can tense up for fight or flight mode and/or we might recognize an increased heart rate, muscles tensing up, or even feeling flushed. If you can identify triggers, and preemptively do something about it, that can help mitigate added stressors this holiday season," says Lewis.

For example, can't talk politics with your in-laws? Try respectfully asking your family from the onset of the holiday season to not discuss this topic. If your father-in-law just can't avoid talking Trump around the dinner table, change your behaviour. Try excusing yourself, going for a walk or watching something in another room, Lewis advises.

And most importantly, all three experts recommend to not take what difficult folks say or do personal.

"Blaming others instead of taking any responsibility is a tendency for toxic people so remind yourself to let it go. It is not about you, it is them," notes Lewis.

Season for reason(ing)?

For those we are close to, we might feel comfortable enough to share with them how their actions impact those around them. However, for those who have negative personality characteristics, including narcissistic tendencies, it might be quite difficult to reason or get through to them.

While all three experts agree that a discussion can be had with difficult people, they all advise to never tell a toxic person they are toxic.

"You must bring up the topic gently, delicately, and preferably indirectly, so you don't offend them," says Gruman. "If you do offend them, they go into self-protection mode and focus on defending themselves instead of listening to what you have to say."

The prof recommends focusing on the behaviour, not the person, and being as specific as possible when addressing what you perceive as difficult behaviour.

"It's always possible that people will regard their behaviour, but not themselves, as worthy of change, but this had to handled with the same level of delicateness used to defuse a bomb," he notes.

Lewis recommends starting the discussion, if you feel inclined, by approaching it from your own experience, using "I" statements, and sharing your feelings, as well as what you need from them. Be assertive and clear. Sometimes, you might even want to practice what you'll say beforehand; even though it might sound silly, it can make a big difference.

The season is too short to not enjoy all of the merriment. So go forth, armed with these tips, and, perhaps, disarmed by spiked eggnog.

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