How to Survive Stressful Family Members During the Holidays

Updated on October 23, 2017
izettl profile image

I'm passionate about health, wellness, social issues and relationships. I offer relatable content and solid advice.

Dreading the holiday gatherings
Dreading the holiday gatherings | Source

Grudges, heavy drinking, political debates, arranging and rearranging of holiday schedules, comparing lives, and mean-spirited gossip . Maybe this is the year you give yourself the gift of time away from your family.

Family Stress

Which family members cause you the most stress?

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Happy Holidays!

It's almost here! Not the anticipated arrival of the holidays season, but the visit from my in-laws. The imminent visit is a blaring reminder that I have certain family members that are impossible to deal with . . . the ones that find fault with me no matter what I say or do, but are kind enough (sarcasm) not to tell me to my face (they'll wait to talk about me behind my back). Yep! Happy Holidays!

One family member likes to drink (a lot—breakfast, noon, and dinner drinking). He can get angry when drinking, but everyone is supposed to excuse him for these drunk outbursts that are personally insulting. He says things he doesn't mean (which are very mean), yet never takes responsibility.

Sad thing is, many people in the family look for his approval. I don't want his approval, which obviously makes me the offensive one. It would be a whole lot easier to "go along" with the dysfunctional pattern, but I simply can't. It hurts me, people close to me, and it hurts the disturbed family member(s) by enabling them.

I see this scenario played out in numerous families. The most abusive one gets all the respect. The most unhinged member is adored and coddled. Fighting an addiction? Other members have plenty of excuses for that.

Often the only healthy individual finds themselves standing on an island of their own, watching the manipulators, gossipers, and the abusers repeat a vicious cycle.

My husband's family has a history of being burdened with addictions and depression. He overcame and changed the legacy for his own family we have together. I admire him because he's done nothing short of turn his life around. However, his family represents the painful past and triggers old issues . . . then we have to recover from their visit. It is better than having to deal with them year round, but this one visit can set us three months back.

His family would like to interfere with anything that resembles healthy and good for him. They'd love to destroy the family we created because they have already done so for themselves (his brother? 6 divorces).

First, ask yourself this: What gets you down about seeing family? Once you cut through the vague sense of dread about family gatherings and identify specific problems, you can deal with them directly.

— WebMD
Holiday stress
Holiday stress | Source

Nothing Works!

Holidays are big triggers for family issues. Some of us can gulp it down with a heaping helping of turkey and ignore it. Others have opted out of family get-togethers altogether because second helpings of psychological abuse are no longer appetizing.

Have you tried it all?

  • Keep your distance.
  • Tolerate occasionally.
  • Set boundaries.
  • Be civil at all costs.
  • Fervently and tirelessly try to maintain the family relationship.
  • Accept it.
  • Ignore it.
  • Screw it.
  • Give up.

Have you asked yourself what the payoff is for tolerating certain family members? Why do you tolerate it? I realized it made me physically ill to see some family members.

Physically ill!

This is important to note! Why would I do that to myself? Why would I allow my kids to see me this way? I won't! It's a decision I wrestle with every year, but I have to consider myself.

For too long it was never a personal choice, because I knew my boundaries would affect others. Seeing family meant I was doing "the right thing" or "helping keep the family together."

Not my (or your) responsibility!

Have you considered . . . ?

  • Will they blame the division of family on you; the one person that draws the boundaries?
  • Will it blow the chances of reuniting the entire family?
  • Will it put others in an awkward spot?
  • Will new problems arise?
  • How will it impact others?

If most of these questions pop up in your head during the holiday gatherings, then likely you've considered everything but yourself. You would drive yourself nuts trying to make everyone else feel at ease while you harbor the stress.

The decision rests on you. I know that's not the answer you want, but you have likely tried everything else . . . and it's been for the sake of others, not you.

Why am I doing things that make me miserable?

The limit of your self-abuse is the limit you will tolerate from other people. Nobody hurts us worse than ourselves, therefore we make the rules up about how we are to be treated, and what we think we deserve based on the wounds we learned growing up

— Don Miguel Ruiz
Say 'no more' to family stress!
Say 'no more' to family stress! | Source

Time to Change?

Being mistreated by family members doesn't make sense or can seem unfair. The reason for this is that that you allow it, not that you deserve it. There's a distinct difference in that. You allowed it when you were younger because you didn't have much choice; you were likely manipulated because you were dependent on them for something (love, acceptance, shelter, food, money). Things have changed!

It's time to revisit the family dynamics:

  • Are you an adult (not dependent on family members)?

If you are independent of your family, you do not need to tolerate their manipulations or abuse. If they are adults, they do not need you to "protect" them or "help" them. If you need love and acceptance from them, you must address that personally. Once that is addressed, you may try out the relationships with the family member(s) again.

  • Do you have your own kids/family?

You can't pass down the family "legacy" of abuse to your own family. You are setting an example. They are not sacrificial lambs to offer your extended family for abuse. It is best to focus on them, and make this your #1 priority.

  • How do YOU feel when the family member(s) are around?

I checked myself, and I felt physically ill. Big red flag! Does it simply make you nervous? Or sick? Your gut reaction and body sometimes know more than your mind gives them credit for. Listen to your gut responses.

  • Have you run out of excuses?

Maybe you're trying to keep them away with excuses, but they're getting suspicious. Be more vague: "I can't make it this year." "I'm not going to be able to come. Sorry." If they ask more detail, reiterate, "I just got some things going on."

Where does it stop? Family issues get passed down, because nobody has broken the cycle for the kids in the next generation.

Escape family stress during the holidays
Escape family stress during the holidays | Source

Survival Tips

If you are going to visit with troubled family members, here are some survival tips:

  1. Prepare emotionally and psychologically. Forget about ideal relationships. This is survival. Keep things superficial without divulging a lot of your private life. Avoid questions. Some family members take any info as ammo.
  2. If something hurtful is said or done, simply say, "That's hurtful". It gives the behavior acknowledgment without personalizing it.
  3. Change the subject . . . often if you have to. For those who spew psychological abuse, you can walk away, give vague answers, or change subjects. This isn't as much fun for them.
  4. Personally practice healthy living. During the holiday season, you’re more likely to be stressed out by more than the usual obligations and errands; it's cold season and your immune system is down, darker days, eating unhealthier foods, shopping, time constraints, and less sleep. The holiday stress makes it harder to cope with your family. Treat yourself well. The more you practice your own version of healthy living, the less effective dysfunctional family members are.
  5. Limited time around problem family members means perhaps you go to the Thanksgiving function but not any other events. Limit your time and use an excuse if you have to so that you can get away at any time. Various other family members can keep in touch with you in other ways if they want to.
  6. Take a break before the event. This can go two ways . . . take a de-stressing timeout or mini vacation beforehand. Take a time out from troubled family members, and those associated with them, before going to an event. A detox. This helps induce clarity to see the issues at face value without all the drama and emotional or psychological interruptions.
  7. Separate your adult self from your childhood. We have a tendency to go back to the injured or needy child when confronted with certain family members. We all play a role and we immediately re-enter it when around family again. Keep your eye on the adult world you have created—remind yourself who you've become on your own without family influence. They must know and see you as you are now.
  8. Be aware of negative patterns. Dysfunctional family patterns repeat themselves like a room full of bad wallpaper. Recognize bad patterns and don't repeat them. Refuse to join in the gossip or insulting, etc.
  9. Take control! The first way to take control during holidays is with your time. Do less than you usually do. Perhaps you don't have time to make your usual dish or attend ALL the events. You can't be bothered with extra constraints on your time. If you stay aware of your time, you will be less likely to do things the way they've always been done, further disrupting the patterns.
  10. Don't expect an ideal family. Expectations get us in trouble. We might want things to go a certain way in our family, but they do not...and never will. Don't expect to have a great, heart-warming relationships with your mother for instance, if she has never treated you well. It may never happen before she dies even. Drop the expectations.

Your Own Approach . . .

The things you can do all year long to avoid stressful family situations:

  1. Self-care: Family stress is twice as excruciating when you are not caring for yourself. Research ways to practice good self-care habits. You will find your whole perspective changes when dealing with any kind of stress as long as you are addressing it within yourself.
  2. Be on the offense: you do not have to be the one carrying the family burdens. My father was a lawyer and he taught me to always be on the offense, not the defense. Catch yourself from being put on the defensive by others. Do not over-explain anything to them. In fact, you owe no explanations. Turn it around on the other person. In most cases, questions can be defused by answering the question with a question." Return fire with, "How would you feel if I asked you that?" or "What do you think I'll say?" By doing so, you force them to answer their own question, or at least tip their hand to what they want to hear from you. You can start the conversations and you can direct them how you want them to go.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


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    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      2 years ago from The Great Northwest

      You're right on point about 'when troubles arise, the troops fall in'. That's the goal at least. In some families, the troubles are "the troops".

    • fpherj48 profile image


      2 years ago from Carson City

      izettl....Thank you for your response. Surely no one nor any family can be even near-perfect. What matters, IMHO, is that when troubles arise, the troops fall in and do whatever possible to help & support.

      As time goes on, we're left with memories of what was and lessons we learned from our experiences & relationships.

      If we're sincerely able to say that the vast majority of our familial bonds & experiences were positive, supportive & comforting, we need not wish for more than this.

      I commend you for being the strength and wisdom in breaking a cycle of dysfunction, despite the reluctance of some members to awaken & do likewise. Your lives are all the more fulfilling & meaningful for your choices.

    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      2 years ago from The Great Northwest

      Paula, That's a wonderful way to think about your family. It's important to remember all families have their issues. The other important aspect of that is that they are there for you when times are tough and have your back as someone you can ultimately count on.

      I'm sorry to hear about your sister, but the relationships in your family are very inspiring, not because they are perfect, but rather they are genuine. Thank you for sharing!

    • fpherj48 profile image


      2 years ago from Carson City

      For a long time, I hesitated (or changed the subject if possible) when friends spoke freely & negatively about family and/or the dynamics. First of all, responding with a lot of empty comments, just to talk, is not my style. More than this, it's always a precarious position to find one's self. We've all heard it said, "I can say my brother is a total jerk, but don't YOU dare even hint at it." Just a bit of hypocrisy? Damned if we do, damned if we don't...sort of.

      I rarely, if ever, shared much about my own family. This of course was not the case if I happen to be speaking to close associates who knew my family well. They knew I was speaking the absolute truth. Otherwise, I harbored a "feeling" that most people either thought I was bragging/boasting, lying or worse, trying to come off as better than OTHERS.....none of which I could ever have any need nor desire to do.

      The blatant truth of the matter is, I think I may have had the greatest family in the world. Yes, certainly we had our moments of troubles, disagreement & slightly bad times but for the most part, we loved one another fiercely & unconditionally, were always there for one another and probably laughed enough for 10 families (my Dad being responsible for this) My sister, (my senior by 5 years) from the ages we were 13 & 18, was my dearest, closest friend and confidante until the moment we lost her to cancer, as I held her hand as she breathed her last breath. It saddens me deeply that I am the sole surviving member of my birth family....but I am.

      Holidays with my Mom's side were simply wonderful. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, everyone, were happy, loving people. I recall no fights or problems. In talking with my cousins (we are still very close) they remember nothing disappointing either. My mother & her siblings all got along well. They ALL loved my Dad. He had to be the most lovable guy of all. There simply were no problems. I can understand why some people might think I'm full of crapola....My Dad's side of the family? Well, sorry folks, but they were even more happy-go-lucky & loving than my Mom's side. Plus, we had our own entertainment! My Dad & his brothers sang acapella Harmony for hours while everyone listened and sang. My Uncle Steve did impressions and Uncle Pete told jokes. I never once witnessed a fight...not even harsh words exchanged.

      So, take this for what it's worth please. I finally decided I am proud of my family & shouldn't be hesitant to tell people about them. Holidays for us were looked forward to, fun, filled with laughter and lots of hugs. I still have several cousins & their mates & children. Down to one elderly Uncle, my Dad's youngest brother. I do miss the old days.

      Happily though, I have my own family of adults, my sister's kids & their crew of children & ....OMG, 12 grandchildren of my own. So far, so good. I'm happy I had this opportunity to remember how very very blessed we have been.

      Family difficulties, dysfunction, estrangements literally break my heart & I have a natural reflex to wish to "fix" them. I'd say that's precisely why I had the 30-year career I had. Peace, Paula

    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      2 years ago from The Great Northwest


      Very happy to hear this isn't a main concern in your family! I cant remember a cohesive/united family get together.

      Thanks for the comment and sharing! Happy holidays to you!

    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      2 years ago from The Great Northwest

      Peg, I know you've probably been going through that recently. My dad no longer talks to his sisters who were very money and materially obsessed when their parents died. Really ugly situation. My dad opted out of the money, but I would've fought out of principal. Just sad.

    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      2 years ago from The Great Northwest

      @Denise Anderson

      So true! I've got caught up in those expectations only to dread it, which shouldn't be like that. Hopefully people I understand you need a break.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 

      2 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      These are great tips! Before my in laws passed away we gathered as a family for every holiday and most birthdays. When it got to be too much, I had to set boundaries and let my husband know we needed some family time by ourselves. I know I stepped on some toes in the process, but like you said, when you start getting physically ill before a gathering, it is time to do something different!

    • BarbRad profile image

      Barbara Radisavljevic 

      2 years ago from Templeton, CA

      I'm so thankful this is no longer a problem in our family, but I know families where it's still a huge problem. I will be sharing this with some of them. Some even have two separate celebrations so that certain family members don't have to be abused by others, but can still see the ones they get along with. The ones that can relate to everyone in peace go to both. It's sad.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 

      2 years ago from Northeast of Dallas, Texas

      Lizett, Another occasion that should be a time for comforting one another yet ends up being stressful and full of unkind behavior is when a family member is hospitalized or terminally ill. It seems to bring out the worst in people.

    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      2 years ago from The Great Northwest

      Thanks Peg!

      Well now I'm interested in finding out WHY family gatherings create more stress for people. I know people with good family relations who still get stressed about the gatherings. Something to research...Thanks!

    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      2 years ago from The Great Northwest


      Thank you for the comment. Stress is a huge factor in general, but to add family stress on top of it all can be too much.

      The stories I've heard over the years just writing on this topic, amaze me how hurtful family can be. I hope within my own family to break that cycle and that's all someone can do moving forward, away from abuse.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Helpful tips here for the holidays. Stress is a silent killer and sometimes people get hurt by their family. It is hard to believe that family can hurt each other in such ways.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 

      2 years ago from Northeast of Dallas, Texas

      These important reminders are just in time for the holiday season which is quickly approaching. I'm not sure why family gatherings have to bring out the worst in people, but you're right. They often do. I like your strategies for handling the stress.

    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      2 years ago from The Great Northwest

      Thanks Dr Kulsum

      How awful you had to endure abuse from a sibling in addition to your other hardships. It's a shame when family hurts instead of helps. Thank you so much for sharing!

    • Kulsum Mehmood profile image

      Dr Kulsum Mehmood 

      2 years ago from Nagpur, India

      Dear Lizett, very well written, very well phrased write up. I, myself and my son are victims of my sibling's abuse. I am a single parent, gone through a divorce and a widowhood. In olden days I was abused by my sibling. Now things have changed, I am a professional with financial stability. My bipolar son has grown up, with a better medical control of his condition. So, I ignore any smart talk from my sibling and believe in the phrase " live and let live ".

      Nice hub. God Bless you .....


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