Healthy Ways to Cope with Difficult Relatives This Holiday Season

For when things are not so merry and bright.

Photo via Getty Images/Illustrations Amanda Lucidi

So, you’re dreading the holidays. That’s fair—you’ve probably lived through enough of them to know what to expect. Maybe it’s some irritating bickering. Maybe your aunt comments on your weight again. Maybe you stress drink wine until your family-friendly filter turns off and you share in great detail how fundamentally screwed up you think they all are. Or maybe you like your family, in which case, good for you. For the rest of us, we talked to local mental health professional, Dr. Jake Kagan, Department Chair of Behavioral Health at Atrius Health in Boston, and put together a guide to avoiding trauma and maintaining your sanity this holiday season.

1. Manage your expectations—this is not therapy time.

It’s healthy to hope for the best—but don’t waste your energy setting unrealistic expectations. “You cannot expect your parents after 75 years to change—you really can only focus on your own behavior,” says Kagan. Staying realistic about the holidays will keep you from feeling disappointed, or you might even find yourself pleasantly surprised. Do not try to cram a family therapy session into your four hour holiday dinner.

2. Make a plan.

Ever notice how every time you go home, it feels like you’ve reverted back to your teen self? A lot of our reactions to families are hardwired. “I think the problem is most of us—we have all of these unconscious triggers that we aren’t even aware of. And that’s where the big problems come up,” says Kagan. Rehearse a little in your head about how you want to react—it might soften the blow.

3. Remember, it isn’t about you.

Sure, that nasty comment mentioned you by name. The eye-roll from across the table came directly after you spoke. Your grandmother passive-aggressively asked “whatever happened to so-and-so.” Despite these seemingly obvious signs it is very much about you—it isn’t.

“Read queues from family members—an intellectual dialogue with a family member is fine, but when you start to get into the emotional places, our frontal lobe kind of goes offline. And then it’s just all reaction,” says Kagan. We take things personally, sometimes our families sometimes suffer from poor delivery, and yeah, sometimes they’re straight up trying to push your buttons. But that doesn’t mean something is wrong with you, so free yourself from being charged with that supposed character flaw.

4. Know your limit.

You are the only one who knows your own boundaries, and you are entitled to act on them. “It’s okay to say I’m uncomfortable and this is triggering,” Kagan says.

5. You have no obligation to stay.

You do not have to sit through dinner for the sake of optics. “You have no obligation to be in a situation where you don’t feel safe. And if you’re starting to feel that way, it’s okay to walk away,” says Kagan. Taking care of yourself should always be the priority—whether that means you are in recovery and tempted to drink, or something as simple as just having had enough. Again, you can’t control what’s around you, but you can control yourself.

6. Do whatever you normally do.

Sometimes the thing that will keep you most sane is to make the whole ordeal a footnote of your day. Do you normally go for a run in the morning? Do that. Do you like to read before dinner? Do that too. “Don’t sacrifice those things that make you more stable for your family members, because you’re just gonna wind up shooting yourself in the foot,” Kagan says.