How to deal with difficult family members over the holidays

Photo courtsey of

Photo courtsey of

Hannah Hurst, Staff Writer

Siblings, parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, they will add up pretty quickly when everyone gets together for the holidays. And more often than not, they can stir up a little drama within the family. We all have those sometimes “difficult” family members, and with the holidays quickly approaching, you need to know how to properly deal with them.

Lorene Hutchinson, assistant professor in the Psychology Department, and Robert Gaddis associate professor in the Psychology Department share their advice for students afraid or unsure of how to deal with difficult family members over the holidays.

Hutchinson describes that the first step in approaching difficult family members is to remember that they are “acting out” for a reason. Often times family members that cause difficulties are going through something in their own lives. They might be mad at another person, hurting from a past experience, struggling with sadness or fighting against depression. Recognizing that this person is dealing with problems will help you to anticipate future difficult encounters with them. Hutchinson advises that when you mentally prepare yourself for having to deal with a difficult family member before they arrive, it decreases your chances of getting upset with them.

Difficult family members will try to push all of your buttons to aggravate you. They know exactly what to say and how to say things in a way that will draw you into a fight. Their aim is to engage in an argument. Hutchinson warned against allowing yourself to get involved with fighting back against difficult family members. Instead of responding to the difficult family members attempts to get you flustered with defensive “I-statements”, you should try to use neutral statements to end the tension. Your goal every time you interact with a difficult family member should be to find ways to “defuse” the situation. One way to defuse the situation with a difficult family member is to seek out common ground with them.

For instance, imagine you spent several hours laboring away in the kitchen trying to cook the perfect dinner. When you finish preparing everything and it's finally time to eat you are feeling exhausted from getting ready to host guests, cleaning the house and preparing dinner. Then enters your difficult family member ready to inspect your meal. They try your food and rudely comment, “Hmm...something just isn’t right, I think you may have messed this recipe up.” Now, you know that you meticulously followed the recipe and you believe that your dinner came out perfect. At this point, you simply need to remember that this difficult family member is just trying to get you upset. Rather than allowing yourself to argue with them over the taste of your food, you could defuse the situation by simply stating, “You’re right, maybe it just needs a little salt.”

And if nothing else works, Gaddis jokingly explained, “you could just avoid them.” You don’t have to completely ignore them, just try to put a little space between yourselves. If you don’t necessarily have to be around them, then don't. Spare yourself the drama when at all possible. That way neither of you has to deal with the added stress of arguments, misinterpretations and misunderstood feelings.