As much as everyone would like to boast of having a great relationship with all family members, the reality is often different.
From controlling relationships to overinvolved in-laws, people frequently have to navigate difficult situations with difficult people – and this is even more so when the holidays mean countless family meals and extra (obligatory) hours spent together.
Here are some tips for managing challenging relationships during festive get-togethers.
1. Manage your expectations
The word “festivities” often conjures up images of homecooked food around a nicely decorated table, peals of laughter, and upbeat music. But what about the behind-the-scenes moments leading up to this (split-second) snapshot?
The chaos, differing opinions, and passive-aggressive commentary from family members are often out of your control. What you CAN control are your expectations and outlook.
Accept that it is highly unlikely for difficult family members to be any different this year, and don’t place unnecessary stress on yourself by anticipating otherwise.
If a festive miracle somehow occurs, you can be pleasantly surprised – but if not, you’re still got your cool in check.
2. Limit and exit
With your expectations set, be prepared for the less-than-ideal environment you know you will be in. Besides being mentally ready (remember, the mind is a powerful tool), try limiting time together by keeping things short and sweet.
Setting a clear time limit and an exit strategy in place will make it easier for you to brave through the festivities, with you maintaining control over when things will end.
3. Choose your level of engagement
Toxic family members may provoke you, but you don’t have to take the bait. You can’t control the behaviour of others, but you can choose to react in a “diffuse and deflect” manner.
Pivoting unpleasant topics away and commenting on something positive instead – such as the delicious meal – will yield better results. You can also have a few go-to phrases on hand, such as “I’ll have to think about it” or “you may be right”.
If the situation necessitates, go for more direct “shut-it-down” responses such as “let’s not discuss this right now” or “thank you for your opinion”. Note, however, that being direct in this way could be considered rude, so do this at your own discretion.
Alternatively, you may choose not to engage altogether. Find other people with whom to interact, or spaces where you can find sanctuary. Help out in the kitchen, join the kids’ corner, or even just go into a quiet room to take a breather.
4. Assume the position of a social scientist
Try this mental exercise at your next gathering: step into the role of a “social scientist” before partaking in any celebrations. This helps you stay emotionally removed from situations and gain interesting insights.
Mum-in-law comparing you to her do-no-wrong daughter again? Instead of letting it ignite your anger, let it engage your curiosity.
Perhaps she’s feeling guilty for not being present in her daughter’s life as she was growing up. It’s not an excuse for using you as a scapegoat, but here’s the takeaway – you don’t have to take things personally. Oftentimes, it’s them and not you.
5. Set clear boundaries
Malaysians would be familiar with varying levels of intrusion from (often) well-meaning elders. But when your aunty starts criticising your parenting skills, or your parents-in-law demand a spare key to your house against your wishes, it’s time to put your foot down.
The key to setting boundaries with family is to do so with tact and kindness. Using a calm and neutral tone, while being specific, can work wonders.
If you can, set boundaries early. For example, you could gently inform the family about the length of time your house will remain open for visits during the holidays, or set certain ground rules about off-limit topics that you know might trigger an argument.
Work on setting your internal boundaries, too. Get yourself into a good headspace before your family gathering by doing what keeps you calm and happy, and by determining your personal limits.
Practise boundary-setting with the trusted people in your life, such as your partner or a close friend, and run roleplay scenarios or practice conversations to prepare you for the real deal.
Here’s to a safe – and sane – time with your family members over the holidays!
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This article was written by Elaine Yeoh for makchic, a Malaysian-based online site for chic, curious, and spirited parents. makchic and has been providing trustworthy and authentic family-related content since 2013. For diverse stories of parenthood that inform, support, and uplift all families, visit makchic.com and follow them on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.