How to Cope with a Difficult Family Member During the Holidays

Are you needing to cope with a difficult family during the holidays?  The holidays are just around the corner and a time to celebrate and rejoice… a time to disconnect with the busy world around us and focus on spending some quality time with family. However, many people today are struggling with how to cope with a difficult family member during this time. 

Interacting with a difficult family member can sometimes feel toxic, dysfunctional and overwhelming. It may feel like someone not respecting your boundaries, being overly critical or not wanting to be a positive part of your life. It is incredibly difficult to cope with someone like this and it may make you dread the holidays and question your plans, altogether. 

When faced with one or more difficult family members, you have several choices on how to deal with it… you can react and engage in dysfunction, you can cut them off and ignore them completely, or you can make the best of it and cope through it. The last option is the best way to maintain a healthy relationship on your terms

Please keep reading to find out different ways on how you can cope with a difficult family member during the holidays.  

hands passing food across a table filled with  platters of food

Maybe your holiday looks like this: 

You are feeling anxious and overwhelmed by the fact that you are going to be around a difficult family member. The last time you spent the holidays with this family member, they made an unwelcome remark about your weight, an unsolicited comment on your relationship status and micromanaged everything when you tried to contribute by cooking a holiday dish. Overall, you felt totally unwelcome, sad and couldn’t wait to leave.

This year, you already can feel the tension rising…and it’s creating a lot of uneasiness. You anticipate uncomfortable political conversations that you don’t want to be a part of, judgements and criticisms that make your question if you even want to do this at all. 

You know with COVID-19 and the climate of our world, you may hear conspiracy theories or misinformation about the virus, talk about the presidential election, and heated discussions about race relations. How can you avoid it? Some of your family members have very strong political beliefs and are passionate and opinionated. All that you desire is some peace, relaxation and to have a good time and to create a good memory or two. It reminds me of a powerful quote “Family is supposed to be our safe haven… Very often, it’s the place where we find the deepest heartache”- Iyanla Vanzante

Eventually you end up in a place of really not wanting to spend time with this family member at all.

You are pining through excuses you can give to do something else… and if avoidance doesn’t work, maybe you can just keep distance. You may also be tempted to indulge in an extra glass of wine, just to ease the difficulty.  Chances are… they lack insight into their OWN behavior, so by confronting someone, you might be considered the “difficult one”... because you are the only one willing to stand up for yourself and see the situation for what it is.

There is a better way around it. Please know, everyone in this world has at least one difficult family member. You are not alone and there ARE ways to cope, where you too can have a good time, set boundaries and be assertive. So, whether it’s your Mom, your Aunt Sue, or your Great Uncle who loves to give unsolicited advice that has nothing to do with your life… there are ways to cope with a difficult family member during the holiday season.  

woman decorating the christmas tree with lights

It’s true that difficult family members can impact the holiday season…creating stress and the temptation for us to want to react. However please know that coping with difficult family can be done. You are fully capable of using some of the strategies below that can help any relationship to grow. 

When you don’t cope with a difficult family member, you may find yourself in a never-ending cycle of conflict. You may find yourself investing a lot of time into “fixing” them or educating them on things like empathy or boundaries. Being called out or gaslighted into being seen as “the problem one”, simply because you refuse to tolerate being mistreated and disrespected. You feel like you can’t win…if you don’t stand up for yourself, they win… and if you do, you’re the problem so they still win! No one needs to win, in reality. But you can’t help that you feel unheard and like you are in a dysfunctional situation, where everyone seems comfortable and well… in denial! 

When you learn to cope effectively and calmly with a difficult family member, you will begin to identify and voice emotional triggers in a healthy way. You can begin to feel heard, validated and authentically get your needs met. You will avoid the need to engage or react when someone is inappropriate, instead you will assert boundaries… and have a clear plan on what to do if your boundaries are not respected. 

How to Cope with a Difficult Family Member During the Holidays

How to One: Prepare

The first thing you need to do when wondering how to cope with a difficult family member is to prepare. There are many things you can prepare in advance to ensure you are able to cope. First, try planning a positive interaction, actually visualize it. See yourself laughing and at ease and having a great time. See yourself as loved and accepted. In addition to that, you want to plan in case things get uncomfortable. First, do you have a place to escape? If you are a houseguest, are there any other family members or friends that live close by that can provide emotional safety? Emotional safety is huge and necessary for growth in relationships. If you are not feeling safe emotionally, meaning… a family member is combative, dismissive, or brings up old scripts or patterns… you may feel anxious. 

Or it may look like a family member drinking too much and saying things they don’t mean and ruining the festivities. This is the time to think about emotional safety and utilizing an escape plan. What does that look like? It can be emotional and physical space between you and the difficult family member. It can be getting your walking shoes to take a walk on your own (don’t forget your earphones and music!) Sometimes, time away can help you think.

The main thing is to protect YOUR energy. You don’t want to leave your long vacation feeling more depleted than relaxed and many times difficult family issues can do that.

Another method to create safety is to seek family allies. Is there a cousin or Aunt you can go take a drive with or get some physical space away from the issue? Sometimes another family member also feels uncomfortable around a difficult family member and may confide in you too. Also, in protecting your energy, consider downloading a few podcasts or meditations… There are some great ones on this topic, and they can be useful when you need to get away and process things. 

family walking towards a barn

Also remember to breathe…

Diaphragmatic breathing can help ease anxiety in the moment and help you feel better. Mindfulness and meditation apps are key too!! More ways to prepare include making sure you are careful with your own alcohol consumption, language (use only language with intention) and don’t get sucked into the drama. Newsflash, as much as you try… you can’t rationalize with irrational people. 

Lastly, a key tool that gets a lot of people through the holidays with family is therapy…. before and after your visit with a difficult family member… therapy, therapy, therapy! 

Our Simi Valley therapists get it!! In anxiety therapy in Simi Valley and online therapy in Los Angeles we work personally with you on how to process hurt feelings from family members and how to communicate effectively to get your needs met in these relationships. 

Cope with a Difficult Family Member During the Holidays How to Two: Set Limits

One thing when coping with a difficult family member is setting limits and boundaries. Sometimes these limits are not respected but know that you have a choice on how to proceed when they are not. Is this a person you want to keep in your life, if the relationship is unworkable? Is the family member toxic? Those are things to decide after you try what I’m about to tell you… but first…try to set limits and boundaries assertively and unapologetically…. with kindness. 

Setting limits may include boundaries concerning topics of discussion. For instance, if you don’t want to talk about politics, set that limit… make it known. If there is another sensitive topic, let your difficult family member know if it’s off limits for you. If they persist, go back to step number 1 and consider another family ally or escape the conversation by adding physical distance (slip away to use the restroom, go for a run to the store). Also, consider limits with staying at your difficult family members home. If it is too uncomfortable, next holiday, opt for a hotel or an alternative place to stay so you can leave whenever you want to. 

Another important point is to avoid “fixing” your difficult family member.

Let go of the need to be right (even if you truly are right) and avoid changing their minds. Many times, people who are stuck in a certain mindset, have deep beliefs, whether positive or negative… Sometimes difficult family members also will try to “bait” you and may try to evoke a reaction from you. 

Do not take power plays or controlling behavior lightly, set boundaries. Protect your energy from anyone who may be intentionally trying to hurt you or instill guilt in you, manipulate you or gaslight you. Speak up with an assertive voice using “I-statements” and know that next year you have a choice who to spend your time with, especially if your limits are not respected. 

stuffed reindeer on a chair

Our Ventura County Psychologists and therapists focus on family issues like this and can help you to set boundaries with others and process feelings and cover options surrounding how to cope with difficult family members. 

How to Three: Pay Attention to your Mindset

Mindset is important going into difficult relationships with family members. One thing to remember is that we can’t change others… only ourselves and our reactions to others. Acceptance into who the difficult family member really is  may help. People are not born “difficult” or “negative” … and the old adage is true… “hurt people-hurt people, healed people, heal people”. Something made them this way…. something they may not now (or ever) be able to talk about/process.

Maybe they are hurting…

Yes, maybe they need therapy but resist the temptation to tell them how therapy changed your life as they may not be ready or willing to hear you… and it may offend them, creating more conflict. It may help to have empathy into why they are the way they are. Did they overcome a difficult medical issue? Were they abused as a child? Bullied? Did they overcome trauma? These are not things to ask them… but if you know them to be true… it may lend insight into unresolved pain that they project onto others. 

Know that for family members with personality issues and unresolved trauma, empathy is the key… we all have had or will have pain…and sooner or later we will all need someone too. If you need someone after dealing with them, seek a trusted family member or remember therapy is always an option. In the room with my clients, I help them identify what is theirs and release what does not belong to them. Are you holding onto someone else’s pain or resentment, without knowing it? Are you the “Family Sponge”? or “Black Sheep”? I love working with “Black Sheep” because most times, they are not that at all… they are simply the family member with the most insight who carries the most shame for the family… and the other “sheep” are not so white themselves!  

Untangling this in a safe emotional space with a therapist can help! Simi Psychological Group offers anxiety treatment near Thousand Oaks, Ca, online therapy in Los Angeles, Ventura County and throughout California

Cope with a difficult family member during the holidays How to Four: Prioritize YOU 

man sitting in front of a laptop with his had on his head in distress

When dealing with a difficult family member during the holidays… or any time, the most important thing is prioritizing your own mental health FIRST!! I can’t tell you how many times people report back from the holidays feeling drained because they had to walk on eggshells with their mother-in-law or had to manage their brother’s moodiness, the whole time. 

You don’t have to be a victim to someone else’s negativity. Sometimes the last option is the hardest… and that’s detaching. Oftentimes, if you must cut someone out of your life…it’s because they handed you the scissors.  Detaching yourself is difficult, but in online therapy sessions, we will focus on understanding that detaching from a difficult family member doesn’t mean you don’t love or care for them… it just means you are prioritizing your own needs and mental health. Together, we can address your healing, rethink dynamics in your family relationships, and empower you.

Lastly, I will conclude with a little example I like to use in session at times when a client may be struggling in a relationship or especially with family dynamics. It’s called the “crab pot” example: 

Imagine a fisherman caught a bunch of crabs to cook and puts them all into a pot to boil. What do the crabs do?… Sometimes they struggle and move around a lot, some settle and stay at the bottom and some will step on the backs of other crabs to get out of the pot, when the heat rises. If you are a crab trying to escape, you may need to step on a few other crabs to get to the top and eventually jump out of the pot. However, some crabs…they see you rising to the top, they see you trying to get out… and they know they cannot get out. So what do they do? They do their best to pull you back into the pot and keep you “in your place”.

 In family dynamics, it can look like pulling you back where you’re” supposed to be”, which is a denial of dysfunction because they are “fine” and you are the “crazy one” trying to get out of a boiling pot, when “nothing is wrong”. When you are pulled back into the crab pot, you are pulled right back into your assigned role and back into dysfunctional family dynamics. And I AM HERE to tell you… you absolutely CAN get to the top of your crab pot and get out!! Remember you deserve to feel welcome and loved. Family can be anyone. You can prioritize who is fortunate enough to have you in their lives over the holidays and how you will be treated. 

“If you want to know who your family is…look at the sidelines, the audience, the people clapping and cheering for you, telling you how much faith they have in you. That is what family is all about” 

Coping with a difficult family member over the holidays can be difficult… but it can be managed. Our therapists in Simi Valley, Ca are here to help in this struggle to empower you and help you have the healthy family relationships you deserve! Whether you are wanting in person sessions or online therapy in Ventura County, Los Angeles or in California we are here to support you! Call us today and schedule a free consultation and let us help you heal yourself and your family! 

Written by Dr. Reena Becerra

therapist Simi Valley ca offering online therapy in the LA area and Ventura County

I believe that through self-compassion, inspiration and hope it is possible for anyone to reach their deepest and truest goals. My focus is working with children, adolescents, and families that struggle with Anxiety, ADHD, Depression and relationship issues. I also have a strong passion for working with adults with a history of trauma. Healing, self-love and acceptance and growing through transformation, are all within reach. Learning to truly love and connect with one’s self and others is a true gift and it is my honor to be on this journey with you. 

If you are wanting more support on coping with anxiety and depression check out this blog and our full collection

Check out our YouTube channel to watch Dr. Becerra’s video among much more here.

Therapy services offered at Simi Psychological Group 

Now Offering Online Therapy in Los Angeles and Online Counseling Ventura County 

At our Simi Valley therapy practice we offer Child therapy and family counseling, Teen therapy, Anxiety Treatment, Depression Therapy, Marriage Counseling, and Neuropsychological Testing