Holiday Survival Guide: How to deal with dreaded family members

Of course you love your family members, but how do you make sure everyone's differing opinions and personalities mesh?
Of course you love your family members, but how do you make sure everyone's differing opinions and personalities mesh?
jluxenberg/flickr Creative Commons
Of course you love your family members, but how do you make sure everyone's differing opinions and personalities mesh?
Looking forward to the holiday season?
mhaithaca/flickr Creative Commons
Of course you love your family members, but how do you make sure everyone's differing opinions and personalities mesh?
A family poses for a silly portrait.
marcia.furman/flickr Creative Commons

We love our family. Well, most of the time.

But the holiday season brings the chance that you will have to converse with relatives you rarely see — dreaded and sometimes uncomfortable conversations, say, with the uncle whose politics you abhor, the cousin who flaunts her religious beliefs, or the brother-in-law with strong opinions about how to raise children.

'Tis the season to cope. 

We asked you on social media what family members make YOU mad – and, more important, how you manage to keep your holiday cheer. We took the best of your advice, and share it below. We also talked with a couple of experts on family issues.

Herewith we offer up this Thanksgivukkah Holiday Guide to Not Killing Your Relatives.

Good luck!

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Political gadfly: Not to pick sides, but we all have a relative who favors one political party or another, and naturally think you're an idiot for supporting what you do. Chances are this person is not shy about telling you their opinions. 

Though it's best to avoid the topic altogether, sometimes that's just not possible during the holidays. 

Life coach Martha Beck from O Magazine has a few ideas up her sleeve in terms of how to deal with a dysfunctional family during the holidays. She suggests accepting your family member's difference in opinion. There's no way you can change who they are, so accepting them will help relieve stress.

She says you can also become a participant observer, meaning you can take an outsider's point of view and find humor or fascination in their wildly different views on things.

People I might normally have avoided—criminals, fundamentalists, PTA presidents—became absolutely fascinating when I was participant-observing them. Almost any group activity is interesting when you're planning to describe it later to someone who's on your wavelength. 

Also, give yourself some room to decompress if your family member is getting on your nerves. A walk around the block or some fresh air might help you cope.  KPCC's education reporter Annie Gilbertson avoids these uncomfortable conflicts by staying busy with books and "work." 

Twitter tip

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Religious/atheist. This can be the aunt who asks you sweetly when was the last time you attended services, or the Goth niece who rails against the false pieties of your superstitious religion. More yams?

"Bowing your head in respect as grace is said before a meal is not an affirmation that one believes in God," says Emily Yoffe, who writes the Dear Prudence advice column for Slate. "It's just good manners, and makes the rest of the meal easier to swallow for everyone than announcing having to listen to a a short prayer is an imposition and you won't participate."

She adds:

"Church is a different question and depends on the circumstances. If it's a family tradition that you've always attended Christmas Eve midnight mass together, and that tradition is very meaningful to your family, it's simply a nice gesture to go along. Again, that does not mean you have to believe in what is being said, you are just honoring your loved ones by making a small sacrifice of your time. If you're being hounded to go to church every time you visit and you find attending uncomfortable, then you're free to politely say you're going to take a pass and will see everyone later. If the pressure continues, you can declare the conversation is closed, and if you have to, leave the room to prove it."

Mental health therapist Teresa Roden tells the Standard-Examiner newspaper that it's important to set boundaries. If you know a subject is likely to spark a disagreement or outright argument, it's best to let people know the subject is taboo. Before dinner. (Esquire has a list of such topics to avoid.)

KPCC Facebook follower Carmen Trivino Miller had this to share:

I stay away from religion and politics. I am a very liberal atheist and [my mother's husband] (and my mother) are right wing christian fundamentalists. He always has to put his two cents in where it doesn't belong and the prayer before eating is narcissistic and a half an hour long! I just want to eat!

"Avoid small talk," writes another KPCC follower, Steffan Piper, on KPCC's Facebook page. "Practice being quiet and smiling peacefully. Don't begin conversations. Behave like you're at your office party around your bosses and management, and remain as calm as possible." 

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The Parenting "Expert." Then there are the relatives who feel they know what's best for children. All children, including yours. How can you vaccinate? How can you NOT vaccinate? What about breast feeding? Until the age of 6? 

It takes two people to escalate a situation, but only one person to stop it, says Geoffrey Tumlin, the Austin, Texas, author of "Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life." 

So when Aunt Sally starts criticizing your cooking or parenting techniques, recognize you can't change other people's behavior and just let it ride, he says.

Therese J. Borchard, associate editor of Psych Central, has a few suggestions on how to interact with folks who bring up sensitive topics. Borchard suggests "making a plan" and visualizing the type of conversations you can expect to encounter. Whenever possible, come up with a contingency plan before you lose your temper. Here are a few tips: 

You would be wise to start strategizing before the doorbell rings about where you are going to sit, what conversations you will have, how you will respond to sensitive issues, and boring questions you can ask to fill the uncomfortable voids. You might invent five or so canned retorts to be used when unjustly interrogated, or compile a list of necessary exit plans should you reach the about-to-lose-it-in-a-big-way point. Visualizations can also help. For example, picture yourself inside a bubble, with an invisible layer protecting you from the toxic stuff on the outside.

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Vegan/Carnivore. What about the relative who thinks meat is murder? Or, alternatively, the carnivore who can't believe you'd serve a tofurky on Thanksgiving?

Here's Dear Prudence's Yoffe again:

Vegans have to be used to making due when dining at the homes of others, especially if they're coming for Thanksgiving, which is the anti-vegan meal. The obligation of the host is to provide sufficient side dishes so that the vegan isn't starving. Bread, salad and a side dish like Brussels sprouts or green beans should cover it. it would also be thoughtful to purchase a good quality frozen vegan entree that you stick in the toaster oven in time for it to be served with the rest of the meal. 

(Want to make game-changing potato latkes for your holiday feast? Video here.)

RELATED: 'Meat is murder!' and other things you shouldn’t say at Thanksgiving

Do you dread having awkward conversations with relatives and family members during the holidays?

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Drama Queen/Diva. Then there's our favorite: The aunt who has to be the center of attention. The one who has to arrange the family photograph when all you want to do is watch the game. The drama queen who thinks it's all about her. Or him.

Judith Orloff, an assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA, offered this advice to Good Housekeeping magazine: Never ask a drama queen or king how she or he is feeling. Set limits (see above). And take a slow breath and center yourself when you sense him revving up. "An energy vampire succeeds only if she jangles you; if you stay calm, she'll go on to another victim," Orloff says.

Gideon Tsang/Flickr Creative Commons


The topic of gun control in this country is controversial, and you likely have family members that feel very strongly about one side or the other. Instead of adding fuel to what could be a fiery conversation, talk about something more enjoyable, like football, movies or the weather.

If you can, avoid talking about political issues at all costs. Sometimes, you just have to accept the fact that you can't change other peoples' views. If the topic comes up, consider taking the passive route by walking away and avoiding an unnecessary fight. Temporarily surrender your ego to ensure a feud-free holiday. 

Author Melody Beattie says, "Unhook from their systems by refusing to try to control them."

"Don't violate your own code of values and ethics, but don't waste energy trying to make other people violate theirs. If soul-searching has shown you that your mother's opinions are wrong for you — as are your grandfather's bigotry, your sister's new religion, and your cousin's alcoholism — hold that truth in your heart, whether or not your family members validate it. Feel what you feel, know what you know, and set your relatives free to do the same." 

Here's more of what our Facebook followers have to say

How do you deal with awkward and annoying conversations during the holidays? Share your coping mechanisms in comments, on Facebook or on Twitter @KPCC

Have a question for Dear Prudence's Emily Yoffe? Submit it here, and we may use your question on a segment of Take Two after Thanksgiving.