How to Survive Your Family During the Holidays

Dreading the annual family get-together this holiday season? Stressed out about it, ready for arguments or fights, or not looking forward to being told how to live your life or what you’re doing wrong with it? Can’t stand your uncle Bob? If that’s you, here are 5 ways to survive your holiday this year and actually enjoy some good cheer for once!

#1 – Don’t Take the Bait

At work or around relatives, I’ve found it useful to avoid two key hot-button topics: religion and politics. Nothing will trigger deeply-held convictions and inflame a conversation into a shouting match like those two subjects. We love to talk about our views and beliefs but because these are highly personal, often we judge others who do not share them or become offended when others criticize them. Arguments ensue.

Whatever your beliefs or those of your family, if you want to avoid lots of heated conversation, steer clear of anything dealing with religion or politics. Don’t bring it up. Don’t take the bait when others do. My family has a tacit agreement not to talk about either since we are all on very opposite ends of the spectrum on both. Instead, we talk about hobbies or topics we have in common.

Sometimes this can be quite boring or mundane but it will save your cortisol levels going through the roof or shouting matches ruining a nice meal. I for one spent countless hours over the years talking about bird houses and sewing with my grandmother to avoid certain conversational traumas. Weather conversations too with her and others. The art of diversion became a handy skill to keep the peace and enjoy my visit with them. It also lead to other more meaningful conversations over time that deepened our respect and love for each other even though we held very different views and opinions.

If your family has certain hot topics that push everyone’s buttons, see if you can’t avoid bringing them up or throwing fuel on the fire. Be the adult in the room and divert to other topics – even if it’s just the weather these days. Your stress levels will thank you.

#2 – Get Personal

So you’re not fond of your cousin Larry but you’ve got to spend 5 hours hanging out with him for Christmas dinner. Or maybe it’s your sister-in-law that makes you want to reach for five glasses of wine. When talking with them, you can use a handy trick that makes my life easier: control the conversation by asking about them.

Maybe you don’t want to know about them or feel like you know too much already. The point is to control what they’re talking about so that your holiday time isn’t making you wish for a Xanax. People love to talk about themselves and if you’re asking questions about their kids or something else that they love, they automatically begin to relax and go off the defensive. Better, showing an interest starts developing rapport.

As mentioned, I have had many conversations about bird houses and the weather with my grandmother that were terribly boring. But it took us from distant to having a warm and loving relationship over time. I stopped dreading the family parties at Christmas and began to enjoy the people I’d never gotten to know all that well because of differences we had always resented before.

Ask about their lives, about what they do at their jobs. Don’t ask how their job is going unless you want complaints. Ask what, who, when or why questions instead. People will open up and you can find areas of commonality to explore that don’t leave you wanting to bash your head against the wall. You’ll also be the one controlling the flow of the conversation so that you’re not the one being grilled or examined. It can take practice but over time, this skill of creating rapport with people you may find uninteresting or even dislike is one that will serve you at any family gathering – and even in your everyday working profession.

#3 – Be Active & Choose Your Zone

Sometimes when dealing with your family, where and what you do with your time is key. Getting trapped with certain people in the living room might ruin your visit. A great way to avoid this is to plan ahead. Be proactive by having activities prepared. Sitting around or  getting stuck with certain people can implode your holiday otherwise. What do I mean? Here are some ways to stay busy:

Join the kids. If the adults get on your nerves, be the one who entertains the kiddos. I’ve gotten out of many terrible conversations and away from obnoxious individuals simply by playing games or babysitting younger cousins or nieces and nephews. Make ornaments or crafts. Play games or color with them. While this may not take up every moment of your holiday or be the greatest thing ever, you’ll limit exposure to what really brings you down or sets you off. And on the plus side, you’ll be sharing time with kids and building wonderful relationships with them that can last a lifetime.

Run errands. Need to get out of the house? Volunteer to run for supplies or pick people up.

Go out. My family has a tradition of seeing a movie after certain holidays when I’m in town. It’s something we can enjoy together and it knocks out several hours. My cousins and I hike nearby trails or go out to eat together on longer family visits. Visit friends in the area or go to local events and museums. It doesn’t have to only revolve around your family.

Get in the kitchen. It may be more work but less stressful in many ways if you can be the one cooking or hosting. Both jobs are always busy. Whenever I host a party, I’m often in the kitchen for half that time while everyone else is visiting. This may trap you with some people or free you from others so it may or may not be a valid option for you.

Do chores. This isn’t glamorous but it can keep you busy and get you out from underfoot in stressful situations. Loading or unloading the dishwasher, washing or drying dishes, taking out the trash – they are small things but sometimes every moment counts or you just need a breather. Chores may or might not win you points too but it’s always a plus when they do. Need more time? Volunteer to clean a bathroom, rake up leaves, wash someone’s car, or fix something around the house if you’re handy. Get creative.

Pick a zone. Maybe your favorite people are in the kitchen or on the couch watching sports. A porch or garage might be safe. Find ways of staying or rotating out to these places regularly. If you’re staying overnight, go take a nap or a shower. Claim headaches. Whatever works.

#4 – Limit Your Time

All day or multi-day affairs with family can really get us down or upset us. Limit your exposure by only staying for a meal or a couple of hours. Make arrangements ahead of time to be somewhere else – even if that’s just an appointment with your couch to de-stress later. You can blame work or claim traffic for leaving or arriving late. Have other dinner parties to attend or host.

Pre-schedule your time and stick to it in order to save your sanity. Others may initially guilt trip you but they’ll get used to it. And if they don’t, that’s their problem, not yours. If you need an immediate excuse and don’t feel like saying “you’re driving me crazy”, claim a migraine or stomach ache to leave or go lie down. Again, whatever works.

For those of you who usually host, say that you don’t have the time, energy or money this year and pass the responsibility to others. Be a guest instead. People may complain at first but that’s fine. Let someone else handle the task so you get a break.

#5 – Don’t Go

In the end, sometimes it’s better to just not go. If it’s just a matter of people rubbing you the wrong way, maybe holding out an olive branch, being less sensitive, or using the above tricks can help you get through or enjoy your family during the holidays.

And then there are those families that are just impossible.

If your family holidays turn into literal fist fights or you come away with your heart shredded, maybe it’s just better not to go. You have permission to not be around violence, people who yell at you or those who make you feel small. Sometimes the best gift you can give yourself during the holidays is peace. If your family is hurtful and cruel or distant and cold, assess if you really want to put yourself through the emotional ringer one more time with them.

In some cases, a call or card is enough. It keeps the connection alive but limits interaction. This can be really helpful and healing. Or at least provide needed space and boundaries.

In other cases, taking a complete break from family is best. This is your life and we can’t choose our families. Some people take this as a reason for sticking close no matter how abusive relatives can get. Personally, I say that if the people in your life are breaking you down, then limiting or severing ties is fine and maybe even necessary. People shouldn’t cause each other pain. If it’s too tough to tough it out, that’s a sign you need distance.

This is your life to live. You don’t have to celebrate the holidays and you can use them to enjoy precious vacation days in ways you actually enjoy. For instance, on many holidays I take trips overseas. I’ve spent Thanksgivings in France and Barcelona, Christmases in Madrid, and New Year’s in New Zealand. Flights overseas can be especially cheap on Thanksgiving! Road trips to a friend’s house to spend the holidays with their family really helped me build my own “family” of friends when I was young and it was too difficult to go my mother or father’s. Some years I host my own dinner parties for local friends staying home for the holidays. Each year is different. I’m not the only one avoiding holiday stress. My aunt goes camping with her husband on Christmas. The two of them love it and look forward to it as a time together in nature.

Use this time of year to relax or go on an adventure. Make your holiday your own with new traditions and new memories – and less stressful ones at that!

Merry Happy Holidays

People may try to pressure, cajole or guilt you into family holiday time. Culture tells us we’re supposed to focus on family this time of year. The holidays can be a great time to reconnect and heal old wounds. Or they can devolve into screaming matches and emotional punching contests. Whatever you situation, there are ways to cope. Don’t feel guilty though if you need a break from the madness. Find a system that works for you and enjoy this festive time of year with a lot more peace and cheer.

Like this article? Please share it so that others can learn these secrets and start living their best lives now.

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