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Holiday tips for coping with difficult family members

Lisa Armstrong is the mother of two grown daughters, a yoga practitioner, an educator and a long-time freelance writer who focuses on health, wellness, and historical topics that affect humanity's personal and collective well-being.

Fostering holiday harmony

All year, you face the stress of juggling work, parties, shopping, cooking and caring for your children or elderly parents. Then come the holidays, when we often get caught up in unrealistic expectations, which can affect the way we relate to others in our immediate or our extended families -- which can create even more stress. Here’s how you can cope with the holiday angst that difficult family members can cause.

Complaining senior woman

Holidays are a high-stress time

Relationships can cause turmoil at any time, but they can be particularly difficult to deal with during the holiday season, when an already overloaded schedule can reach the breaking point. Family gatherings can intensify misunderstandings and conflicts can erupt, especially if you're together over several days.

tips for stress-less holiday gatherings

Recognize how you deal with holiday stress

Kelly Nix, a family extension specialist for West Virginia University, recommends that you acknowledge your own responses to difficult situations. What triggers stress for you? What stressors can you avoid? Are you over-indulging in holiday food, smoking or drinking alcohol to cope?

Take care of yourself during the holiday season

Your best defense against holiday stress is to pay attention to your needs. Nix suggests tuning into negative feelings that you may have about other family members. Counteract stressors by participating in activities that you find enjoyable or relaxing. Make sure you get enough rest, and do what you can to eat a healthy and balanced diet.

Learn to say no to holiday gatherings

Family members will usually understand if you have to decline yet another evening with the group or they may be flexible about your arrival time or level of participation. Saying no is a way to take care of yourself.

Plan ahead to lower holiday stress

For mealtimes, the experts at Psych Central say knowing the menu, or who is supposed to prepare what, is helpful. Another stress-busting option is for everyone to bring a favorite dish for potluck. Provide a variety of beverages besides alcohol, for those who might get carried away with drinking and its associated issues.

Reflect on responses before they are required

Spend time thinking ahead about what you will say to the usual comments, criticism or quips from Great Aunt Martha or your brother-in-law. This could be your ticket to your serenity.

Set holiday ground rules

If there are specific issues that you know will start a disturbance, ask cooperating family members ahead of time not to bring up these topics.

Choose your behavior wisely

Decide to respond to triggering subjects with logic and tact rather than with emotion. Give yourself permission to go into another room and take a break from others if you need to.

Acknowledge but don't respond to criticism

If someone brings up a hurtful topic, acknowledge it, but don't comment on what has been said. If ignoring the comment doesn't work, however, sometimes all that is needed to defuse the situation is to say "This is not the time or the place to discuss such subjects."

Offer compliments to holiday guests

If someone brings a dish, provide praise and perhaps even ask for the recipe. Such responses may disarm a person who is usually in a cranky mood.

Look for the positive

No matter how bad things are (or become), there's always something to say that is on the bright side. Remember -- and repeat to yourself: "This gathering happens only once a year."

With all the hustle and bustle, sometimes it's easy to forget what the holidays are all about. Don't let your personal stress or the behaviors of others ruin the season for you and your loved ones.

More holiday advice

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Learn to enjoy the holiday season with three easy tips.

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