The holidays are often idealized through images of cheerful meals set around cozy dinner tables, families nestled in their living rooms enjoying cocoa and loved ones with wide smiles exchanging gifts. Reality, however, may be much different than the Hallmark versions of the season, when your nearest and dearest, with their various and sometimes conflicting personalities, gather for your annual family get-together.
According to therapist Ruth Spalding, L.M.S.W., the most important thing about handling this time with your family is figuring out what you want out of a particular gathering. “Do you want to win arguments, or do you want to minimize the stress so that you can actually enjoy the evening? Sometimes we get so used to our role in a family — as the peacekeeper, black sheep, etc. — that we just step back into that role around the holidays,” she explains.
To face every family member head-on with as much grace as possible — without compromising your sanity, stressing out or having to put on an act — try these expert tips for dealing with some of the most common characters you’ll encounter.
1. The Overly Involved Mother-in-Law
In many cases, a meddling MIL just wants to feel needed — the way she used to when her kids were young and she was the one hosting the holiday gathering for the family. This often means that she shows up at your home ready to dish out opinions along with the mashed potatoes. “Show empathy for her yearning to be involved and to feel important,” says child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, M.D., author of Raising Kids With Character. “Welcome her into your world before she has a chance to barge into it by asking for her advice and getting her involved.” You just might learn a new browning technique for your holiday ham or bond over the stories she shares from her younger days.
However, Spalding says that if overinvolvement turns into rude criticism or contempt, and your MIL (or anyone else in your family, for that matter) starts name-calling or disrespecting the rules in your house (like smoking inside, for example), you’re well within your rights to say: “We don’t do that in this house. If you do it again, you need to leave.”
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2. The Always-One-Upping-You Sister
You got a promotion? She got an amazing new job and a sweet office, to boot. You managed to get a reservation at the chic new restaurant in town? She scored an invite to the opening-night party. Having a conversation with anyone who’s constantly trying to outdo you is tough — especially when there’s a captive audience — but by giving your sibling the attention she desperately needs, you can ease the insecurity that’s clearly simmering beneath her need to always have a better story, Berger says. “The one-upping sibling is so often nursing a sense of envy and jealousy left over from decades past,” she explains. “Take charge of the small talk to direct attention to the one-upper’s genuine accomplishments and nostalgic memories you have together, focusing on ones in which the one-upper displayed loveable traits like loyalty or generosity.”
If your sister or brother or any other family member hurts your feelings or doles out thinly veiled insults, another option Spalding suggests is to simply ask: “Do you mean that as a compliment?” “Drop the mic and let her flounder, explaining how her comments were not an insult,” she says. “It might get her thinking about what she really just said to you.”
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3. The Outspokenly Political Brother
Though most of us attempt to avoid topics like religion and politics at the holiday table, some relish this opportunity to share their beliefs, no matter how uncomfortable this behavior makes others. Psychologist Traci W. Lowenthal, Psy.D., suggests showing interest to honor what your sib is saying, then steering the conversation elsewhere. “Saying something like ‘Wow, that’s a really interesting perspective. So many different ways to think about things! So, how’s work been?’ she says. “Most of us enjoy sharing a bit about our lives with others. Asking about work and the kids can help get the conversation headed in a different direction.”
Spalding has a less subtle approach: “Use humor to redirect the conversation and say: ‘Oh, here we go, our annual dustup over politics. I love you, brother. Can we just call it a draw this year? Here, let’s eat pumpkin pie to seal the deal.’ Food is always the perfect diversion.”
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4. The Drinks-Too-Much Uncle
Lowenthal says that when it comes to drinking, boundaries around what is acceptable at holiday functions should be addressed before the big day. “Call your uncle ahead of time to discuss the issue,” she suggests. “Let him know you’ve noticed his behavior in the past and that you’d like things to be more enjoyable this year and to honor your request that he not drink or only have a specific number of drinks.” Yes, he may be upset or even choose not to attend, but that’s his choice.
Alternatively, if speaking ahead of time isn’t an option, address the behavior, privately, in the moment by saying: “Uncle Steve, looks like you have had a bit too much to drink. Here is some water. Maybe after dinner we will have time for another drink,” she advises. “You may want to enlist the help of another relative to assist you with the conversation or in dealing with the reaction as it arises.” And, of course, do not allow him to drive himself home.
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5. The Glued-to-the-TV Brother-in-Law
Year after year, your brother-in-law parks himself on the couch to watch the game and never offers to help prepare the meal, supervise the kids or clean up while the women of the house slave away in the kitchen. Not this time. “Approach your brother-in-law and give him a specific task,” Lowenthal says. “Say, ‘Mike, we need you to mash the potatoes!’ Then, hand him the masher and turn off the TV."
While you may get some grumbles at first, child development and relationship expert Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., M.Ed., says that asking for his help will actually make your brother-in-law more fond of you. “A secret in psychology is that when people help you, they like you better, because they’ve made an investment in you — and you must be worth it,” she explains. “When you give clear and precise instructions of what you need from him, and then make sure he follows through, this can be a real bonding experience.”
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6. The Doesn’t-Want-to-Be-Here Teenager
Depending on the teen, he or she may be just putting on a brave, too-cool-for-Christmas face. According to Berger, an irritable adolescent is usually aching for someone to treat him or her as a real equal with warmth, friendliness and respect. “Put your mother-in-law in charge of the yams and spend half an hour asking your youthful grouch about music, movies or books that he or she really enjoys,” she advises. “Use your full attention, open-ended questions and sympathetic curiosity.” This will draw the teen out of his or her shell and realize that hanging with the family isn’t really so bad.
On the flipside, if a teenager is acting out, manipulating or being passive-aggressive with his or her behavior, the best thing you can do is ignore him or her, Gross says. “If you’re the parent, then you should be prepared for this behavior ahead of time and put in place consequences for when it occurs,” she advises.
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7. The Holier-Than-Thou Vegan/Paleo/CrossFit Devotee
Choosing a healthy lifestyle is one thing, but throwing that lifestyle in everyone’s face — or making negative remarks about what other people are cooking or eating during a holiday meal — can really ruin the mood. To prevent comments before they start, plan ahead. “Text or phone guests to ask about food allergies as well as food preferences,” Gross says. “If someone’s particular food needs are not on your menu, tell the person to bring along a dish so he or she can contribute to the holiday meal and get much-needed attention for being part of the team.”
You might even introduce this person as the “resident food expert” or ask for some tips about post-holiday detox, says relationship expert Fila McMillan-Antwine. “This will grab everyone’s attention, start a dialogue and please the ego of your holier-than-thou guest.” However, if this guest starts dominating the dinner conversation with analysis of the food being served in a way that might insult the host or offend others at the table, she suggests pulling the person to the side and asking him to put away the soapbox for the evening.
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8. The Random Date Your Aunt Brought
Your perpetually single aunt is known for having a new guy in tow every holiday season. You want to make this year’s beau feel welcome, but you also don’t want to spend your entire evening getting to know him — since you’ll likely never see him again.
“Make him feel welcomed by recommending he try your favorite dish, them gently end the conversation with a ‘nice to meet you’ and a handshake,” McMillan-Antwine suggests. If you get seated next to him at dinner, keep the conversation brief and general, focusing on where he’s from, what he does for work and how he and your aunt met. “You’ll have engaged the new guest, put a smile on your aunt’s face and avoided any proverbial land mines,” she says.
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9. The Kid Who’s Home From College
After one semester away, a college kid will likely return home with a much different attitude about the house rules — particularly which ones he or she still needs to follow. So if you’re the parent, it all comes down to being open about expectations to nip any conflict in the bud right away so you can enjoy the holidays together, says psychologist Dr. Kevin Gilliland.
“The key is the conversation on the front end of the visit,” he says. “Say, ‘I know you can come and go as you please when you are at school. However, we are old and this is our house. How can we be good roommates?’” Talk to your child about what you expect when it comes to chores, helping out, laundry, curfew and alcohol. “The focus is not so much on what the right answer is, but on solving problems together before they start,” he explains. “He or she may still be your child, but your child is now an adult.”
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10. The Overextended Mom
If your mother is doing the hosting — and always tends to burn the candle at both ends to make everything perfect — you might get a little frustrated watching her stress out while everyone else makes merry. Try to ease her to-do list by offering your help before the big day. “Say, ‘Mom, I know the pies take a long time. I’d like to bring them this year. What kind would you like?’ or ‘Would you share the recipe for the stuffing with me? I’d love a chance to make it this year,’” Lowenthal suggests.
If she refuses, let her. For many people, doing it all (even if that means running on no sleep) brings them joy and allows them to express their love for their families. “You have to meet someone where they are, and many times an overextended mom is doing what she needs to do,” Gross says. “So it’s important to appreciate that without creating any negative energy or controlling her behavior. You have to step back and accept your mom for who she is. Be gracious and say thank you.”