The holidays can be an exciting time, especially if you genuinely enjoy spending them with family. However, if you’re someone with an aunt who constantly inquires about the state of your love life, or an uncle who says truly ignorant things that are rarely checked, you might be approaching Christmas with serious apprehension. We did give you some great tips on how to get through the holidays with a dysfunctional family, but sometimes it’s deeper than that. Maybe their behavior, or the behavior of a specific relative, is more than just annoying, but instead, it causes you great concern.
There are ways to equip yourself to not have to deal with family members who leave you in an emotional tailspin, though. Conflict resolution expert Damali Peterman offered up some advice for every kind of troublesome relative. For instance, there are ways to avoid having to argue with that same cousin you always bump heads with.
“Any topic, person or event that you know will lead to an explosion, you can avoid them,” she said. “You can’t control the behavior of another person, but you can control your own. If you know that if you bring up politics, someone’s pecan pie or whatever the case may be, it’s going to end in an issue, then you can steer away from that issue.”
If they still come at you looking for trouble, maybe because they want to get under your skin, Peterman says do not engage.
“What happens if you don’t engage? What happens if they come over ready to pick up where you last left off? How about instead of you doing what they think you’re going to do, you try what we call non-complementary behavior,” she said. “That means that you do the opposite of what they think you’re going to do.”
Examples of non-complementary behavior include de-escalating situations by speaking calmly and in a lower voice. If they frown at you or come off upset from the jump, smile in response. Peterman says it’s about taking back control that we often lose in the midst of conflict.
There are family members who don’t mean harm, though. They ask you about a recent breakup, when you expect to conceive a child and other things that cause you to freeze up. Peterman’s advice is to redirect their question, not by completely avoiding it to talk about something else, but by introducing new information. Throw in an “and” as opposed to “but” when responding to triggering questions
“If you say things are going great, add ‘and I also did xyz’,” she said. “You can redirect the conversation to something that you want to talk about.”
Another thing she recommends is to answer a question with a question.
“They may be asking you about your love life because they have a new person they’re dating that they want to talk about but they don’t know how to bring it up,” she said. “It can be a way to reveal what the person is actually getting at by asking the question. Perhaps they’re just nosy and want to be in your business, but you won’t know unless you try it out.”
What do you do about the really discourteous family member? Perhaps they make homophobic comments or speak on social issues in a way that is truly problematic. Sadly, while you might want to tell them about themselves in that moment so as not feel you were silent against such ignorance, Peterman says it’s best to address that person’s behavior away from the rest of the family.
“In my experience, usually the holiday gathering, especially if you’re in the midst of many people, isn’t the right time to try to change someone’s perspective on a situation,” she said.
She says people will often want to save face and not feel like they’re being called out in front of everybody. Because of that, the spades table on Christmas night may not be the best forum to try and change someone’s mentality.
“What I tell people to do is pick your battles,” she said. “That being said, sometimes you can’t help it. Maybe what they’re talking about directly affects you. Find a time to bring up those conversations in a way that would be received better. I think timing and opportunity have to be aligned, and typically, family gathering time is not the time.”
In the moment though, she says that “silence is golden” in response to ugly comments about sensitive issues. When you don’t say anything in response, the individual might move on from the uncomfortable topic, especially if you actually engage them by actively listening, but offer nothing back to them.
“It’s hard to fight someone who’s not fighting back with you,” she said.
However, if you’ve tried your best to arm yourself and protect your peace before attending a family function every year but you still find great discomfort in the idea of being around certain people in your family and don’t want to tiptoe around them, sometimes it’s best to just distance yourself. This is especially the case if your relative(s) are not people you can address directly about how their behavior makes you feel because they won’t take it seriously.
“There are many ways to get around going to do something,” she said. “You can put it on work, you can put it on studying. You can go somewhere else. I think there are a lot of ways you can do it where people won’t feel a certain way.”
Who needs to duck and dodge people when you can just to not be bothered? Send a holiday card or drop off gifts and keep it moving. Visit those you actually want to interact with after the holiday. If being around family, or specific relatives, is something you dread, Peterman says it’s best to do what’s necessary for your well-being.
“If it causes you too much anxiety, by all means, find a way to bow out of it gracefully,” she said.