6 Ways Therapists Deal with Difficult Family Members During the Holidays

published Dec 8, 2021
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The holidays can be a special time filled with loved ones and family members you haven’t seen in a while, but it can also be a stressful time if you find yourself in close proximity with people you’d rather avoid. (Hey, it happens!) You might begin feeling the anxiety and stress of seeing your family days before your trip, and the thought of interacting with certain family members can cause plenty of people to be nervous. It can get complicated, especially if nothing you’ve tried to soothe the tension has worked in the past. What do you say? How do you react? 

If anyone knows how to navigate situations like these, it’s therapists. Apartment Therapy asked licensed professionals how they deal with difficult family members in their lives, especially during the holidays. Here are six ways therapists deal with difficult family members, which you can also borrow during your next stressful holiday or family gathering.  

Focus on what you can control.

If you know you’re going to come in contact with difficult family members during the holiday season, it can help to pivot your mindset. You likely cannot control what a family member might say to you, but you can control how you react. By focusing on ownership of your reactions and actions, you create a space for yourself to limit your exposure to toxic energy. 

California-based licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist Leah Aguirre encourages people to “remind themselves of what they do have control over versus what they do not have control over.” When it comes to sensitive topics or subjects, she recommends asking yourself, “Is this going to be a productive or positive conversation?” Though it might be tempting to defend yourself or set a nosy family member straight, sometimes silence is the best response to probing questions and difficult topics.

“Talking at each other and trying to prove one’s stance or point is not the same as having an open conversation and discussion,” Aguirre adds, noting that in the moments when you recognize you’re becoming angry, it can be helpful to take a deep breath, walk away, or try to switch the conversation to another topic. “Ask yourself, ‘Is it worth my energy or the expense of my mental health?’ Usually it is not. So do not try to engage and provoke if you know the conversation is going to go nowhere.”

Look to find compassion for the other person.

Though it can feel tough at the moment, California-based licensed therapist David Grammar recommends entering your interactions from a place of compassion if you can. “The foundation is compassion for the other person and this means taking some time to understand where the individual is coming from,” he says. 

By trying to sink into another person’s backstory, you may soften your approach toward someone who seems to focus on negativity. Be mindful of setting boundaries and not allowing the offending person to have a free pass for his or her behavior. “This does not mean justifying behavior and allowing someone to be mean or abusive,” Grammar notes. “It just means trying to understand the individual’s experience or view point.” Focus on the emotions and try to read between lines on what is at the root of the discomfort. 

Set time limits.

Keeping interactions with family members on the shorter side is a good way to avoid exacerbating existing problems. Build in ways to excuse yourself, whether it is a bathroom break or extending a helping hand in the kitchen. 

“Limit how much time you spend with these difficult family members,” Aguirre says. “Maybe two hours is all you can take and you decide to make your visit short and sweet. Or, take some time-outs. Find a private space to take deep breaths or give yourself a pep talk.” 

Use grounding techniques.

If you find yourself becoming anxious around family this holiday season, you might get caught up in your own thoughts. As a result, you might overthink your behavior — and a good way to snap yourself out of this cycle is to remind yourself about the world outside  your mind. 

According to Georgia-based therapist Habiba Jessica Zaman, grounding yourself by focusing on one thing that corresponds to each of your five senses can help you pay attention to the present and not get too caught up in a tough conversation. “Grounding helps to feel rooted to the ground even when there seems to be external upheaval,” she says.

She recommends finding and identifying one thing for each of the five senses — so, asking yourself what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. You might see “ tables, chairs, bookshelves, and my hazelnut mocha frappuccino,” while you feel “the base of my wrist is sore from typing, the tips of my fingers are cold, and the scarf is soft and warm,” says Zaman. 

Create a list of boundaries.

Identify your personal dealbreakers regarding a person’s behavior in advance, so you can recognize when a conversation might be getting stressful. “Create a list of boundaries that will help you feel calm around difficult family members,” Kelley Stevens, a California-based therapist, tells Apartment Therapy. “Then make a plan for how you are going to implement those boundaries.”

She recommends spending a few minutes to actively think about whichever family members who choose to constantly bring up unwanted topics. “Consider writing down a plan for how to respond to them at that moment,” Stevens explains. “One way to diffuse the situation is to say, ‘Let’s talk about something else, this topic makes me feel uncomfortable.’” 

Again, sometimes the best response is no response — and perhaps even removing yourself from the person’s direct periphery if it is safe for you to do so. “If the subject comes up and you know it triggers you, remove yourself from the room and find another person to connect with,” says licensed social worker Jennifer Keleman. “Take a walk and come back feeling refreshed and full of strength.”

Use basic cues to help you navigate overwhelming people and situations.

Anytime you know a conversation with family members is heading places that aren’t necessarily productive,  Canadian-based therapist Lavlet Forde recommends using one or more of five cues to help guide you through the situation. You can remember them by thinking about the acronym S.P.A.C.E.:

  • Signs: “Recognize the signs,” Forde explains. “Are you feeling frustrated? Irritable? Angry?”
  • Proximity: Forde recommends “Creat[ing] some distance. Consider creating some physical space. This could be done by going into another room, or considering leaving the festivities a little bit earlier.”
  • Access Support: “Consider talking to a friend,” Forde urges. “Often talking about our difficulties can create a healthy outlet.”
  • Calm: Forde suggests that people who know they’re heading into potentially stressful situations “use calming activities before, during or after the event. For example, it could be helpful to go for a short walk. Walking is both therapeutic for the mind and body,” she explains.
  • Enjoy and Reflect: ‘Enjoy your time but also reflect” on any interactions, how you felt, and what you may have learned from the experience, Forde says. “Journaling is a great resource to use to express oneself and reflect.”

And if all else fails, it’s within your right to not further engage with your family member. “Think of it this way: Silence is a response,” Forde says. “Silence gives you power, [and] lets you say, without uttering a sound, ‘I’m not going there with you.’”