How can I cope with difficult relatives on Christmas?

Caption: Asking For A Friend: Deal with dysfunctional family at Christmas

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The most wonderful time of the year? Not when you have a dysfunctional family and a rocky relationship with your hometown.

For people who don’t get on well with their family, or have yet to overcome trauma from their past, going home for Christmas can be less cheer and more stress. 

Spending time in places – or with people – you associate with difficult memories can be painful and triggering.

Not only that, but some family members can be purposefully provocative, stirring the pot to get a reaction.

If staying away from family isn’t an option this year (indeed, many of us feel obligated to visit our families during the festive period), you need to arm yourself with some life hacks for dealing with difficult family members. 

How to cope with difficult relatives this Christmas

Set boundaries around what you will and won’t discuss on the day (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Have a break from social media

Around Christmas, social media is often teeming with idealised versions of family Christmas, with expensive gifts and immaculate decorations. 

‘Seeing this will only add to the pressure you feel to make your day perfect, too,’ Vanessa Cochrane, a relationship expert at BrandRated, tells

‘Take a break from it, and hopefully you will appreciate your real Christmas even more.’

And remember: social media is a highlight reel – it never shows the full picture. 

Set clear boundaries

‘Just because you can put up with something, doesn’t mean you should,’ says Vanessa.

If there are certain things you don’t want to discuss, whether it’s money, politics, your love life or something else, make sure your family members know this. 

‘You could be making a conscious effort to be more mindful and consume less negative news, for example, but it won’t be easy if everyone around you wants to talk about it,’ Vanessa continues. 

‘Set your boundaries and remind your family what topics are off limits, and this should minimise potential arguments.’

Ask questions

If your family isn’t the boundary-respecting type, make sure you’re ready to divert conversations when they get uncomfortable. 

‘Take a breath and keep your tone calm, and first let them have their opinion without reacting,’ says Vanessa.

‘You might want to address the issue, but sometimes that can only add fuel to the fire rather than calming it down. 

‘Ask questions to help understand their point, rather than defending yourself. 

‘Being curious and calm will help to avoid aggression and get to the root of the issue without raising tempers.’ 

appy guy in outerwear with corgi dog go and carry christmas tree, prepare to celebrate Xmas and New Year. Hand drawn color vector illustration isolated on light background. Flat cartoon style.

Take some time to yourself (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Take a break

You don’t have to spend the entirety of your Christmas break around triggering family members – there’s no shame in making time for yourself.

Vanessa suggests planning some activities, like a game of charades or a Christmassy craft, that everyone can get involved in while you slip away for ten minutes to give yourself a break.

‘If the tension is rising, suggest everyone get some fresh air and go for a walk,’ she adds.

‘A change of scenery can be really helpful after being confined in the house together from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day.’

She also suggests setting a limit of how long you will spend with certain family members that you know are difficult to be around.

‘Sandwich that time with seeing friends or family that bring you up instead of down,’ she says.

Put yourself first

Finally, don’t be afraid to look out for yourself (someone has to do it).

‘You know what you can and can’t cope with,’ says Vanessa. 

‘Put yourself first and don’t be afraid to say no to invitations, especially from toxic family members, that will put you in a stressful situation and harm your mental health.’

This can also apply to exchanging gifts when you don’t have enough money.

‘Say no or suggest a secret Santa with a budget as low as you can afford, so everyone still gets a gift with much less pressure than shopping for everyone,’ says Vanessa.

‘With a strict budget set, you can avoid a relative commenting that they spent more on your gift than you spent.’

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