For a lot of people, the holidays are a time of fun, relaxation, and family bonding. For others, family time isn’t as pleasurable as they wish it were. If the holiday season is riddled with anxiety of spending time with your family, you are not alone, and there are ways to cope. Difficult relatives can make family get-togethers an occasion to be dreaded, rather than something to look forward to.
Here are my tips as a psychotherapist and mental health professional, for coping with difficult relatives during the holidays.
The Effects of Difficult Relatives During the Holiday Season on Mental Health
If you typically avoid a specific relative and your engagement with them is limited to large family gatherings once or twice a year, sometimes simply seeing them can be awkward.
Things can be even more tense especially if you took a step back from the relationship and this was not well received.
There may not have even been a direct discussion, but you have stopped interacting with them solo. They may hold some animosity owing to the lack of invites to dinner, phone calls, and so on. And simply knowing that is a source of stress when it comes to seeing them again.
Examples of Difficult Relatives
Relationships with relatives can be strained for a variety of reasons, all of which are perfectly valid. Alcohol or drug use, volatile personalities, mistreatment of their spouse or yourself, or even your child (for example commenting on their physical appearance or academic performance) can all put tension on your relationship with them.
If you play a number of roles in the family, you may be more likely to face pressure from relatives. For example, if you are a wife, step-mom, daughter, sibling, grandchild, and in-law, your obligations to your spouse, children, step-children, parents, siblings, and in-laws may conflict with each other, creating more room for strain on each of those relationships.
Pressure rises even further if any relative has a tendency to guilt trip you to prioritize their needs over others as a way to please them and de-escalate their emotions.
I want to be clear that in circumstances of violence including physical and sexual violence against you, I strongly suggest not attending family functions over the holidays, under any circumstance.
My Suggestions For Coping With Difficult Relatives Over the Holidays
Every situation is different and life is full of compromise. Distress tolerance is a skill worth learning that could help you find balance in managing these occasions.
Exercising choice and choosing what to attend, when, for how long, and what events to sit out or avoid could help immensely. Still, tolerating a certain amount of distress is part of being a well-rounded adult. Unfortunately, we can’t avoid every uncomfortable situation. Sometimes we attend to make someone we love happy, and that is perfectly fine. Not every meal, social interaction, or holiday family gathering has to be your favorite thing in the world. If you look at it as a moment in time as opposed to something that is all-consuming, you may have an improved outlook on holidays with family.
The important thing is knowing what is simply uncomfortable or mildly distressing, and what is debilitatingly anxiety-inducing, and opting not to attend the events that have that effect on you. If you experience an increase in anxious symptoms when the holidays approach, consider talking through with your therapist leading up to the holiday season.
In Conclusion: How to Cope With Difficult Relatives During the Holidays
The increased obligation to spend time with people you don’t always like or get along with during the holidays is a source of anxiety for a lot of people. It’s important to understand why you might find holiday get-togethers distressing, and work through that with a psychotherapist. Understand that sometimes, a level of distress tolerance is necessary to navigate this season, but if you find difficult relatives extremely taxing on your mental health, it is advisable to seek professional mental health care.
If your safety is at risk at family gatherings over the holidays, do not attend them, and rather seek new ways and traditions to explore to work towards a more happy and fulfilling festive season.