Tips to Cope with Difficult Relatives during the Holidays


Feeling stressed about the holidays? You’re not alone.

While the holidays are a time for celebration and gatherings with family and friends, sometimes these activities can lead to not-so-festive feelings of stress and anxiety.

Simply put: Many people find these annual reunions stressful, perhaps because of the potential for conflict between relatives who don’t get along.

Think about it. Many people feel pressured already to fit all of the holiday extras into an already-busy schedule, or spend lots of money on gifts. And on top of that have relatives coming!

Here are 10 tips to help make your family festivities more enjoyable and less stressful:


  1. Adjust your attitude

Try focusing on the positive. “Before get-togethers with family members, think about the qualities you like about them, rather than focusing on the negative,” says Diep Ho, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Rancho San Diego.

Instead of worrying about what could happen, choose behaviors that can help decrease your anxiety. Before an event, do something relaxing, such as practicing yoga or listening to music.


  1. Have realistic expectations

Don’t expect people to change when they have behaved in the same way for years. Minimize your contact with difficult relatives, and spend more time interacting with those you like or get along with better.


  1. Keep potentially upsetting topics off-limits

Politics and religion are obvious, but people also bring up touchy subjects without thinking about how they might affect others. Plan to keep conversation conflict-free by avoiding potentially sensitive topics.

“Simply say, ‘Let’s not get into that now.’ Then change the topic,” says Thomas Lian, a psychiatrist and behavioral health medical director with Scripps Health.


  1. Accept the only thing you can control is your reaction

You can’t stop people from bringing up controversial subjects or asking rude questions, but you can monitor and modify your own reactions. No one can force you to engage in a negative conversation.

“Keep in mind that you can only change yourself. You can’t change what your difficult relatives are going to do,” says Dr. Ho. “Don’t waste your energy trying to change others and accept that you can only control your own actions and thoughts.”


  1. Don’t drink too much

If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Some people become aggressive or argumentative when they’ve had too much to drink. Avoid people who have had too much to drink, and don’t let them drive.


  1. Stay active

Get out into nature if you can and enjoy the fresh air. Nature has calming benefits as well. Exercise with a friend you’ve been meaning to catch up with and cross two tasks off of your list at once. You can also play a game or watch a funny movie that will keep you engaged.

  1. Practice gratitude

Anxiety can be diminished by focusing on the things we enjoy and value. Take a time-out and think about all you have to be grateful for.

Remember, the holidays can be a special time to celebrate your accomplishments, reflect on your goals and envision your future.


  1. Practice tolerance

“We all do things that irritate other people, and we probably aren’t aware of it,” says Dr. Lian.

Try to be tolerant of others people’s quirks and behaviors that irritate you. Don’t take them personally. “If nothing else, remember you only have to experience it for a little while,” Dr. Lian says.


  1. Bring a happy reminder

Looking at a favorite photograph, a funny text from a friend or anything else that makes you smile can go a long way toward relieving stress. When things get too stressful, plan to sneak away and take a break.


  1. Breathe

When you feel overwhelmed or find yourself getting tense or anxious, take a few minutes to focus only on your breathing.

Take several deep breaths, counting five seconds in, and five seconds out. This deep, deliberate breathing automatically short-circuits the stress response in your body, slows your heart rate, and allows you to get back to a calmer state. Plus, you can do it anywhere, any time.

“To Your Health” is brought to you by the physicians and staff of Scripps. For more information, please visit or call (858) 207-4317