8 Ways to Minimize the Family Drama this Holiday Season

Use these expert tips to manage meltdowns, avoid fights and enjoy your time together.

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The holidays are upon us once again and while, on the one hand, you want to embrace this family time, on the other, you feel your blood pressure starting to spike. Old resentments between siblings may simmer. Criticism cloaked as concern can grate on your nerves. And, uh, who’s that new boyfriend covered in tattoos?

There is, in fact, a way to enjoy the holidays without changing a single thing about yourself or your family. The first step is to ramp down expectations and work toward accepting your relatives just as they are, recommends Bruce Conn, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Coliseum Medical Centers in Macon, Georgia.

“Thinking your family is going to be different is just a setup for discomfort, pain and problems,” he says. “They're not going to be different, they're going to be the same, so you can be ready for that.”

With that in mind, read through our expert’s advice for navigating potential landmines, and finding more joy and reasons to give thanks during this year’s gatherings.

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Get allies

When you think about it, every family has its own set of issues or problems. The challenge is to enjoy the gathering and stay calm in spite of what might be swirling around you.

Strategy: Huddle with some pals ahead of time. If you know you’re going into a situation that may be difficult, “let them know, and talk through some of the scenarios,” recommends Conn. “That way it’s less disruptive, it’s less of a surprise.”

If need be, arrange for a pal keep their cell phone next to them at their family dinner. You can always head to the bathroom to send an SOS text if you need a little morale boost.

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Recast your role in the family drama

There’s no two ways about it. You go home, and everyone reverts back to their place in the family. The bossy one is still the bossy one. The victim still plays the victim. The funny one still makes nonstop jokes.

“In this situation, just be as aware of yourself as you can,” says Conn. “Am I falling back into the same role in this family drama? And that's what it is. It is a family drama that gets reenacted.”

Strategy: First, the don’ts: “Don't go in trying to solve something that's never been solved, or process some old hurt, or make your point,” says Conn. “None of those things are going to work in this already emotionally charged time.”

And now, the do’s: “Let go of defensiveness and focus on being kind and caring, showing genuine interest in your loved ones and how they’re doing,” says Conn. “Keep it more about the giving, and the being with.” If there are issues that need to be worked out, Conn recommends calling a family meeting after the holidays to discuss.

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Hit “pause” when your buttons are pushed

We all have hot buttons—things said that make us angry, upset, hurt. “When someone pushes a button, what they’re really pushing on is a feeling of inadequacy and inferiority within yourself,” says Conn. “If you get into an argument, it’s an excuse to get mad about something you don't like about yourself.”

Strategy: Instead of reacting, take a step back. Pause. Then, “instead of lashing back, you could say, ‘I’m really not going to talk about this today,’” Conn says.

You’re not showing defeat, you’re simply refusing to take the bait. As the saying goes, no one can make you feel a certain way—the way you feel is your choice. Later on you may want to address those feelings of insecurity or vulnerability in your own way, on your own time, perhaps with the help of a counselor—until your hot button has lost its heat.

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Give up on changing anyone’s mind

Many families today are roiled by current events, whether it’s news about politics, religion or climate change. The main thing to remember is that you are not going to convince anyone to “see the light” and agree with you. And heated arguments don’t really make for the happiest of holidays.

Strategy: Conn recommends that you tactfully say something along the lines of, “You know, this is a challenging topic. Let’s watch the football game, or let’s talk about something else.” If that doesn’t work, remove yourself from the conversation—without slinging any barbed comments before you exit stage left. Play with the kids, make yourself useful with dinner prep or clean-up.

“I've got an older sister who's very far to the left on the political spectrum, and a younger brother who's very far to the right,” says Conn. “I won’t let myself get drawn in. I’ll say ‘You want to talk about that? Okay. You all talk about that. I'm going to see if I can help out in the kitchen.’”

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Navigate the kid competition

Your sister-in-law goes on … and on … and on … about the many amazing accomplishments of her kids. It feels less like a friendly “here’s what my kids are up to” and more like a challenging “try to top this.”

Strategy: Bear in mind, Conn says, that it’s just a superficial ego game. He recommends that if a parent wants to play that game you can say, “That’s amazing. What an achievement!”

The real challenge, he says, comes from not stepping into it. “You may start to feel like you need to compete. Or that you’re not competing very well.” It may start pushing a button for you. “It’s not easy, but try not to let it,” he says. “Let somebody else brag. It’s dehumanizing to a child to identify one thin slice of who they are and compare it to somebody else’s thin slice.” It may also help to remember that the bragging parent is simply trying to bolster their own insecurities.

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Accept that things change

Here comes your divorced brother with his much younger girlfriend—and nobody is thrilled. Now what? “We don't like change,” says Conn. “We want things to be the same. But life moves on.”

Strategy: Embrace the change. “By doing that, you’re better able to accept these types of situations and show the family member respect for their life choices,” Conn advises. Try talking to the newbie! That person may also be feeling anxious and uncomfortable. Showing some acceptance will likely be appreciated by your relative—and make you a favorite of the new guest.

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Tame the little darlings

We all have different parenting styles, and when the holidays bring together parents with their kids, they can clash. You may be concerned if a child is running through the house spilling a drink, or you hear screams from the bedroom when an unruly cousin breaks one of your child’s toys.

Strategy: “This is a tough one,” says Conn. “You can’t control someone else’s kids.” Focus on managing your own, he says, but at the same time he feels it’s fine to make a reasonable request if someone else’s child is out of control. For instance, if your brother’s young son keeps bullying/hitting/teasing your child, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask your brother to keep an eye on his child and rein in the misbehavior. You can also make kids’ bedrooms off-limits to avoid fights over sharing toys or accidentally breaking them.

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Have an escape route

Let’s say things aren’t quite working out, no matter how hard you try. You’re tired of being criticized about your weight (“Should you really be having a second piece of pie?”), your relative with the opposing views keeps following you around the house or your mother won’t stop throwing zingers (“Well, I guess you’re just too busy to call me the way your sister does.”).

Strategy: Have a plan ready. If you feel like you’re about to blow a gasket, this is the time to say something along the lines of, “We had planned to visit some friends after dinner, so we're going to get going now.” “Literally have your car parked in a spot where it’s not blocked so you can make a quick exit if you need to,” Conn recommends.

To avoid needing the eject button, Conn says, try to arrive with a positive attitude. Focus on participating, showing kindness and understanding and you’re apt to create happy, holiday memories.

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