7 Tips for Coping with Family during the Holidays

A local therapist shares some advice, just in time for Turkey Day.


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'Tis the season of joy to the world and goodwill to all men—including difficult relatives.

Perhaps you’re wondering how you can manage to have a civil gathering when your subtly critical mother-in-law works her way under your skin.

“The National Football League figured this out decades ago,” says Richard Brousell, marriage and family therapist in North Wilmington. “They scheduled football games on Thanksgiving and Christmas so people didn’t have to deal with each other.”

But seriously, holidays can be tough. Some people love them. Some people dread them. If you’re a loyal reader of that venerable advice column "Dear Abby," you know that dealing with toxic family relationships is one of the biggest challenges to holiday happiness.

Family relationships—with their generational conflicts, split loyalties and blended arrangements—are indeed complex, and those challenges get even tougher when rising expectations for holiday bliss get dashed.

“People save up all of their moral decency for two days of the year and treat each other like crap all the rest of the year,” says Brousell. “But it’s also the accumulation of expectations that somehow or another being together will make everything better—or, expectations that you know are already going to be dashed, so you go into the holiday [depressed] from the start.”  

Ready or not, the relatives are on their way. Brousell has some sanity-saving strategies to help us cope with those not-so-silent nights—and days—with family.

  • Mend fences. If there’s someone who’s nursing a grudge or with whom you’ve had a disagreement, try contacting him or her before the holidays to discuss the issue. Reaching out beforehand will help minimize the stress and awkwardness prior to the big get-together. But remember: Just because you want to resolve the matter doesn’t mean the other person wants to do the same.
  • Have a plan. You’d be wise to start strategizing before the doorbell rings. Decide where to seat the fractious factions, what topics you will and will not talk about, how you will respond to questions about sensitive issues and what innocuous chit-chat you will use to fill uncomfortable pauses. You might also want to devise an exit plan should you reach that about-to-lose-it point in a big way.
  • Carry a “blankie.” Everyone knows the saga of Peanuts’ character Linus and his baby blanket. There’s probably a little bit of Linus in all of us, so give yourself an extra shot of strength by carrying some token that tells you you’re OK and to just trust in the process, no matter how uncomfortable it may seem at that particular moment.
  • Don’t take anything personally. That’s what Don Miguel Ruiz advises in his classic book “The Four Agreements.” What others say and do is really a projection of their own reality. When you’re immune to the opinions and actions of others, you will no longer be the victim.
  • Practice acceptance and empathy. Rather than judging or trying to change someone, listen to and understand what the person is thinking and feeling. “Get out of yourself and have some compassion,” says Brousell.
  • Find reasons to be grateful. Remember that gratitude is what holidays are all about. Be thankful for the food, the shelter, safe travel and family and friends. Research has shown that expressing gratitude is a major happiness booster.
  • Opt out. Sometimes the only thing we share with family is a bloodline. In a perfect world, we would be able to fix relationships with toxic family members—but we don’t live in a perfect world. “I think if the environment is so toxic that it would be worse to go than not to go, it might be wise for people to decline,” says Brousell.
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