Relationships can be tricky to navigate, and when you mix together the holiday season and family relationships, that can prove to be the trickiest territory of them all. Feelings of loneliness don’t go away simply because it’s the holidays. In fact, for some, those feelings are heightened and the season proves to be the opposite of merry and bright. If you find yourself navigating rough waters during this time of year, don’t worry—the spirit of the season can be preserved.
Relationship expert Dr. Jane Greer and clinical social worker Marty Babits weigh in on how to ease the tension with relatives and offer various tactics for handling tough situations.
What are some strategies for going home when you don’t have the best relationship with family members?
Dr. Jane Greer: Be prepared. Know which topics of conversation you’re comfortable with and how much you’re prepared to share—this ensures you won’t be caught off guard by intrusive questions. Try to anticipate potentially explosive topics so you can shut them down before getting into an argument or a disagreement.
Marty Babits: Employ self-soothing strategies that are useful for handling stress. These can include meditation, relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, and yoga. Connection to any creative activity—from making music or art to listening to music to appreciating something artistic—can make a positive difference. Of course, volunteering can also be a mood lifter.
What’s your advice for dealing with relatives who you don’t get along with, even if it’s not deep-seated?
G: Recall memories when everyone was getting along and the good times you had together. This could be a holiday when you were younger or a time that made everyone laugh. Bringing up the happy times helps family members reconnect.
B: My biggest piece of advice: be curious. Try to engage those you don’t get along with too well in casual, light conversation. Not everyone in a family is close or is a fan of everyone else, but everyone shares the need to feel comfortable and accepted. Respect that. Try not to ignore anyone, but don’t be pushy, either. Adopt a “live and let live” attitude.
What are some tips for setting boundaries and handling toxic situations?
G: Avoid giving family members commands. For example, avoid saying things like, “Don’t interrupt me” or “Don’t tell me how to raise my kids.” Telling them how you want them to behave will likely just lead to anger. Instead, tell them what you will do, such as, “I know you have a lot of information and want to tell me what to do with my kids, but just know that, if you do, I’m not open to it and I will leave the room.”
B: If it’s an especially toxic situation, physically remove yourself from the presence of provocative or destructive individuals. Do not give in to passivity. Think about what is in your best interest, and make a move in that self-protective direction. It sometimes comes down to simply saying, “Excuse me, but I’ve got to take care of something,” and leaving the room.
What are the best ways to disarm conflict that doesn’t directly involve someone? Are there things people can do beforehand to ease tension between family members?
B: If there is outright hostility between parties that are going to be at the same event, I would recommend that they agree to steer clear of one another. A neutral party who has ties to both sides can speak with them before the gathering and discuss a game plan to help create a boundary. Unless there is someone in the family who has training in conflict resolution, I would not recommend trying to work through the root cause of the bad feelings. That would likely need to involve some form of professional counseling.
At what point in a tense family relationship do you recommend therapy as the next step?
G: Therapy can be the right move when family members are stuck in a circular argument, blaming each other endlessly and feeling deep resentment. When there’s a problem like this that can’t be resolved, it’s what I refer to as a “cold war.” For example, you and your sibling may have stopped talking to each other because of a misunderstanding that has been amplified over time. A therapist can help you get past the grudge and start communicating again.
Are there things people could do before the holiday season that can help them go into it with an open mind?
G: Focus on how you would like your relationships with family members to be in the future, rather than looking toward the past and bringing up feelings of resentment. Remembering how they’ve wronged you will rev up your anger and make you feel entitled to an apology. Rather than going into the holiday season looking for an admission of wrongdoing, focus on the reality that they are likely to be hurtful again.
B: Remember that you are not there to judge anyone. Give yourself the optimal chance to enjoy the people you most look forward to seeing by determining ahead of time how you can promote a friendly mood. This may include having activities planned that can shift the focus away from negativity.
What’s the best way to manage expectations going into the season?
G: Accept your family for who they are and have realistic expectations for how they’re likely to behave, as opposed to how you wish they would behave. You can do this by envisioning the encounter and anticipating what you think they may say to you and how you will respond so that you’re not caught off guard. Instead of going in angry, go in prepared. Don’t engage in conflict.
B: Managing expectations can be achieved through planning to reach out to those in your life who can support you and be there for you. The holidays are especially painful if you are feeling isolated, so it’s important that everyone makes an effort to connect with others during this time. Take a moment to assess your situation, and write down everything and everyone you feel grateful for.
With all the holiday songs, sales, and cheer bombarding everyone on all platforms of media, those who are feeling less than joyous can feel guilty for not conforming to what they perceive to be the ‘correct’ holiday spirit. Allow yourself to resist judging how you feel. The idea that everyone is feeling great is an illusion—don’t compare yourself to the illusion and then judge yourself harshly as a consequence.
Trying to handle (and eliminate) dysfunctional family situations isn’t exactly something that makes you jump for joy, but it is something that, in the long run, will keep the season bright and merry. Start implementing strategies that will help to alleviate conflict, strengthen bonds, and reinforce what makes the holidays so special.
For more info, visit apa.org/helpcenter/holiday-stress
Find out more about Dr. Greer at drjanegreer.com and Marty Babits at martybabits.com