Dealing With Difficult Family Gatherings

'Tis the season. The "family season," that is. Whether you're dealing with one, or seven contentious blood relatives, these indispensable tips will help you turn out a terrific holiday gathering. Or at least a tolerable one.
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Because, holidays.

'Tis the season. The "family season," that is. Whether you're dealing with one, or seven contentious blood relatives, these indispensable tips will help you turn out a terrific holiday gathering. Or at least a tolerable one.

1. Stop trying to fix Uncle Joe.
Some people are difficult for the sake of being difficult. They lack the introspection skills to resolve conflict, and are generally unaware of how they rub off on others. If Uncle Joe's difficult with you, chances are he reacts this way with most people. Don't take his spiteful projections personally, and stop trying to make him happy. As long as Uncle Joe's behavior falls within legal limits, he's not going to Jerk Jail.

2. Don't fan the family flames. It can be tempting to create problems with difficult people in anticipation of them eventually blowing their cool. Steer clear of the family fray by not reverting into fear and paranoia mode (walking on eggshells, waiting for the "other shoe to drop"). Remain positive and keep it simple: "I enjoyed our time together. It's nice when we all get along. Today was so much fun."

3. Protect yourself and your kids.
When Mom pushes boundaries that negatively affect your family, remain firm, but loving. "I appreciate the time we had today, but as I mentioned before, bedtime is at 8:00 p.m. and we have to get going." Mom may see boundaries as a challenge, and an invitation to push your buttons. Hold your ground and impose "second level" boundaries, if necessary. For example, leave without engaging in any further conversation, turn off your mobile phone, and don't allow yourself to be guilted into repeated pleas to make an exception because "it's a special occasion."

4. Meditate/Deep Breath/Relax!
Because you can't control others' actions, it's imperative to remain centered when your brother-in-law goes off the deep end.

Practice the following relaxation tips:

  • Plant your feet firmly on the ground to center yourself
  • Do a few overhead stretches to release tension
  • Relax your shoulders and neck
  • Unclench your jaws
  • Breathe deeply
  • 5. Focus on small talk. Make a mental list of those topics you find safe such as the weather, jello recipes, and your favorite TV show. If you talk about your husband and children, stick to generalities like favorite restaurants or school work. It's hard to invite contentiousness into the conversation when you don't go deep. Also, you can't be accused of ignoring anyone, or offending someone else with hot button topics when you stick to chitchat.

    6. Know you're a good person even if someone mistreats you. When a person projects their negative energy onto you, let it wash over you, rather than allow their meanness to stain your mood. Remember negative people are miserable people. Their treatment of you is a direct reflection about what's going on inside of them.

    7. Accept your family. Avoid making them out to be more evil than necessary. And don't set them up - you wouldn't tell your secrets to a gossip, rely on a flake, or look for affection from someone who isn't able to give it, right? This is part of accepting them for who they are and who they're not. They're not going to change because they don't have to. Period.

    8. Have an exit strategy
    . If 10 minutes is your limit for talking to Aunt Ruth, then excuse yourself, go out to the car, take a walk outside, get some fresh air, or go to the bathroom and recite positive mantras.

    9. Create healthier patterns. Remember that most relationship difficulties are due to a dynamic between two people rather than one person being unilaterally "bad." Chances are you're repeating the same patterns of interaction over and over (albeit unconsciously). Positivity is contagious, and pleasant interactions can improve your chances of a healthier pattern forming.

    10. Keep the situation in perspective.
    You're dealing with a difficult family member, and not a chemotherapy treatment.

    Linda Esposito, LCSW is a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, California. For more resources on dealing with difficult family relationships, check out Team Intrepid.

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