How to Deal With Difficult Relatives

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Shorter Version

Est. Reading Time: 1 Minute

How to Deal With Difficult Family Members?

Advertisers have sensationalized holidays and celebrations because they rack up tons of money. How do they make money off these family events? Well, by promoting the image of tight-knit families, sipping egg nog, decorating the Christmas tree, hugging, and singing Christmas carols.

Or, large families sitting around a gigantic dining room table on Thanksgiving Day, smiling and laughing. There is usually a large stuffed turkey in the center and plenty of sides and desserts surrounding it. Each person passes a plate or bowl to the next. Then, each relative shares something he/she is grateful for.

Let’s get back to reality

While both scenarios seem warm and inviting, you are actually being manipulated by television, greeting card, radio, and movie advertisers. Unfortunately, these cheerful, heart-pulling images are too idealistic and inaccurate for many family events.

The truth is most people have at least one, but more like a few, relatives that irritate, annoy, frustrate, and even anger them. Because of the negative emotions attached to these individuals, their holidays and celebrations often get ruined in the process.

The good news: you can learn how to deal with difficult relatives

The good news is you get to avoid them most of the year, but when those special occasions pop up for family events, you are forced to attend and mingle with them to “save face” in front of the relatives you actually do like. At least it’s only once a year, right?  Thankfully, there are ways you can survive these events with your clothes and dignity still intact. All you have to do is find what you have in common and focus on that. Learn more about how to deal with difficult relatives below.

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Longer Version

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Let’s face it, holidays and celebrations can be hard – really hard. And, while some people love them and can’t wait for them to arrive each year, just as many people fear, hate, or avoid them altogether. These special occasions are supposed to be a time to forgive and forget, be grateful for what you have, bond with relatives you haven’t seen in a while, eat lots of delicious foods, mingle, watch the children play, and have a few adult beverages. For these families, these occasions are filled with happiness and joy.

For others, not so much

But, for others, this time is downright torturous. You want to relax and have a good time with your relatives, but those one or two or three relatives that drive you nuts threaten to step on your joy with their crazy, loud, rude, drunk, pushy, irritating, bossy, grumpy, and/or nosy – very nosy – ways. Learning how to deal with difficult relatives can make your time so much more enjoyable.

We all have an “Uncle Jeb”

Maybe, you have an Uncle Jeb, who makes you want to guzzle as many glasses of wine or boozy eggnog you can just to chill out around him. Why? Well, maybe because he keeps asking you when you want to “settle down and pop out the babies.”

That’s none of Uncle Jeb’s business, but that doesn’t stop him from asking loudly in front of other family members – every year. You walk away – he follows you around the house…until you explode and everyone comes running. So, what do you do in this case? I suggest you shift the focus when things become overwhelming, stressful, tense, challenging, difficult, and uncomfortable.

If that doesn’t work – hide. Just kidding.

But, it wouldn’t hurt to take an adult time-out from that relative and ask to lie down in one of the bedrooms for a little, because you’re tired. Grab a relative you do like and go for a walk around the neighborhood or to the store to pick up more food, supplies, and/or alcohol. Anything that makes the time pass more smoothly and doesn’t ruin your experience is a plus in my book and a great tool for learning how to deal with difficult relatives.

Shifting the focus during tense family events 

So how can you successfully shift the focus when a relative is getting on your last nerve? Listed below are ways you can actually have good holiday celebrations with your family – even the ones that annoy you.

“The more the merrier”

If your Mom and Dad are throwing these shindigs, ask them to invite more people – as many people as possible. Or if they don’t know more people, ask them if you can invite some of your friends. If another relative is hosting the event, ask him/her if you can bring a few friends with you.

The more people at the celebration, the harder it is for those annoying relatives to corner you and say or do something that irritates, angers, or offends you.

~ Psychologist’s Tip!

There are just too many people there for them to focus on you. Plus, you have your own built-in support system that you can hang with while there.

Focus on the kids

Does anyone in your family have babies, toddlers, or young kids? If so, bingo! If one of your irritating relatives summons you to “come to sit” with him/her – and you really don’t want to – go anyway. BUT, try to keep the mood and the topic light. How? Well, if the relative has children or grandchildren, focus on them. Ask questions about them. And, if the relative tries to change the topic – change it back immediately.

But what if the person doesn’t have children or grandchildren? If you have children, talk about yours. Tell the relative funny things he/she did or said. Talk about how your child is growing like a weed and how you wish time would stop. Tell him/her about your child’s eating and sleep habits. Show him/her pictures of your child or children and if he/she has children and/or grandchildren ask to see their pictures. Basically, talk about anything kid-related that will pass the time until you can escape.

Note: If children are a topic of contention in your family, stay away from this topic. If your nosy middle-aged relative has been trying to have children for years but has not been successful, and you already have two at 25, avoid this topic altogether.  

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Remember the less fortunate

Another topic you can focus on with a relative that “works your nerves” during holidays and celebrations is the less fortunate. During holidays, it’s common to see homeless people and hear about elderly people who are alone in nursing homes, hospitals and assisted living facilities. There are also families who have lost loved ones, pets, and who spend cold or hot nights outside alone. There are those who have cancer and are fighting for their lives, sick children that are spending their holidays in the hospital, etc.

So, how can I help? I suggest you ask the host of the holiday event if he/she can ask guests to bring a toy for a child, who may not get one for Christmas (Toys for Tots), or clothes and personal items for women and children living in shelters, or donations for veterans who have served this country, or for abused and neglected animals.

Doing something that you feel passionate about with people you don’t feel any passion towards may actually help you bond, so you don’t feel so aggravated by them.

~ Psychologist’s Tip!

On the day of the celebration, one way to decide how to deal with difficult relatives is to ask the relative(s) that drive you nuts to go with you to visit children in the hospital, animal rescue missions, or homeless rescue missions, and/or entertain the elderly living in nursing homes or stuck in hospitals, who have no family.

Share your accomplishments

If you can’t think of anything to talk about when trying to work out how to deal with difficult relatives, share your accomplishments. Did you just graduate from college to become a teacher? Talk about it. Talk about what classes you took, what you learned in school, what ages and subjects you want to teach, what your long-term career goals are. If you graduated with special distinction (i.e. Magna Cum Laude, or Summa Cum Laude, etc.) – talk about that too!

Talk about the next step – getting your teaching license. Tell them about what this entails and what your plans are to ace the exam. Be confident, but not boastful. No one likes a bragger. Be honest, but don’t over-exaggerate. The goal is to keep the conversation light and flowy, so you can have a good time – not to anger everyone with your excessive bragging.

Encouraging annoying relatives to reach for their dreams will help strengthen your relationship.

~ Psychologist’s Tip!

If you get tired of talking about yourself, ask your relatives about their career dreams and goals. If they tell you they are too old to go back to school or start a new career, tell them, “You’re never too old to learn something new!” Then, offer to gather some information for them.

Actionable Steps


Make a plan before you get there

The best thing you can do if you have relatives that exasperate you is make a plan in advance of what you will or will not say once you get there. Try to do this a few days before, if possible. Your plan should include the following: what you’ll do or how you will react if a relative upsets you, who you will try to hang around during the celebration, how long do you plan to stay, and what you will say when you decide it’s time for you leave.
Consider the various scenarios that could play out during the event, and prepare for them. Focus on lighter, easy-going topics, take an adult time-out, grab a drink or two to relax, go talk to other people, volunteer to go to the store for supplies, hug your Mom and Dad, call your best friends for support, etc.
Making a plan before you get to the event will help you avoid saying or doing something rash, if one or more of your relatives upset you.


Try to be as possitive as possible

This is a tough one, but if a few relatives drive you crazy or anger you so much that you start seeing red, try to stay as positive as humanly possible – under the circumstances. Yes, it will be hard, but not impossible. It’s easy to paint he infuriating person as a “bad seed,” “brat,” “idiot,” or “stupid person,” but honestly, that’s unfair. Remember, that person is a part of your family.
You share some of the same genes, so what does that make you? So, when a relative starts to bother you, and ruin your holiday fun, dig deep inside your mind and pull out something “nice” and “positive” to say about him/her.
Maybe you like the dress your aunt has on. Or you love your uncle’s new cowboy boots. Perhaps you have a happy old memory from childhood you can share with your relative. There has to be something positive you can say about the other person. If you need help figuring what types of things to say to a relative you don’t like, check out: Daily Affirmations for Success and Happiness: 500 Positive Affirmations to Rewire Your Brain. It will help stay positive – even if things start to go downhill.
Even if it sounds simple and cheesy – say it anyway. It’ll make your relative feel good and it may just lift your spirits at the same time.


Be “as sweet as honey”

Even though you probably want to strangle your relative that keeps nagging or bothering you – don’t do that. Also, don’t yell, criticize, or berate him/her either. Why not? Because, it never works and things get even more out of control.
So, what should I do? Well, I suggest you “kill ’em with kindness.” In other words, try to “be as sweet as honey.” So, instead of jumping into a full-fledge brawl at the dinner table, try a little kindness. In fact, studies suggest that a dose of positivity and kindness can avert conflicts-in-the-making.
The next time your estranged sister gives you the “stank face” at Thanksgiving dinner, smile at her and tell her how pretty she looks today. Or, the next time your bully older brother makes a crude joke about you at your birthday shindig; compliment his rad decked-out sports car.
Then, tell him how happy you are the he could come to your party. Let him know how much you appreciate it. In other words, “fake until you make it.” Being as sweet as honey will definitely throw your relative off his/her game and make you look like the awesome person you are.
The best weapon you have is your positivity and kindness, so use it when things get dicey. Many times all it takes to turn a declining situation around is a little sweetness. And, if nothing else, it will burn them up inside, while making you look like the sweetheart you are.


Practice deep breathing exercises and stress-management techniques

If things become tense at your family holiday event or celebration, go to a calm, quiet place and take a few deep breaths. For instance, say your extremely successful younger brother teases you about being a garbage man, excuse yourself for minute and go into the bathroom or an empty bedroom. Close your eyes and practice deep breathing exercises and stress-management techniques.
If your super slim younger sister comments that you are getting a little chubby around the middle, so you should probably avoid the dessert table, excuse yourself for a minute and repeat the suggestion above. Don’t argue with her and definitely don’t start crying. Just de-stress alone in a calm, peaceful environment. If a bathroom and bedroom are unavailable, take a quick walk around the neighborhood.
Keep inhaling and slowly exhaling until you feel calmer and more collected. Other stress-management techniques like mindfulness, yoga, and meditation can help you refocus your attention and find peace. This is especially true in difficult, challenging, and upsetting situations.
Don’t let rude relatives see you sweat. Step away for a minute, collect yourself, and then “kill-em with kindness.” You will have the upper hand – not them.


Be realistic when learning how to deal with difficult relatives

The best thing you can do for yourself if you have a possibly stressful family holiday event or celebration coming up is to be realistic with yourself. Don’t hype yourself up that your annoying, rude, and/or worrisome relatives will somehow be “different” this time around. If you do that, you’ll probably end up even more angry and upset than before.
In other words, don’t expect your histrionic aunt to suddenly care about others, because the world will still revolve around her – her needs, wants, and desires. And, she’ll probably still flirt with your sister’s much younger husband. Maybe, you don’t like your relative because of your own high expectations of what you think he/she should be like – not what he/she is really like.
It is important to understand that you can’t change people. They are who they are. You either take them or leave them. Reducing your expectations of your relative and accepting that he/she is who he/she will always be will help you prepare for future interactions with him/her.
So how can I adjust my expectations? Well, you could purchase books on dealing with difficult, stressful, and challenging people and/or relatives during holidays and family functions, such as, How to Cope with Difficult People: Making Human Relations Harmonious and Effective, Narcissistic Personality Disorder-How To Spot The Subtle Signs Of A Narcissist And Continue To Thrive After An Encounter, and Overcoming Conflict: How to Deal with Difficult People and Situations.
Letting go of unrealistic expectations when it comes to your relatives can reduce your stress and allow you to have a good time at family events.

About the Author

Dr. R. Y. Langham

Dr. R. Y. Langham

Ph.D. in Family Psychology

Ree has a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy (M.M.F.T.) and a Ph.D. in Family Psychology. She spent over ten years counseling families, couples, individuals, and children on adjustment issues such as blended families, same-sex couples, dysfunctional family relationships, relationship issues, etc. Now she writes for famous health organizations and is a published author.
Full Bio | LinkedIn

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