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Beat stress: How to get along with your family over the holidays

Beat stress: How to get along with your family over the holidays

By Shandley McMurray

The holidays are supposed to be magical – freshly fallen snow, twinkling lights and wonderful family dinners, right? Not necessarily. No matter how perfect you may like to pretend your family is, there’s bound to be at least one person who pushes your (or everybody’s) buttons. Whether it’s the aunt who suggests that your hips don’t need that second eggnog, or the estranged sister who has a shouting match with your father, for most, there’s never a shortage of stressful family moments – especially during the season of good cheer. Consider these not-so-Kodak moments:

Holiday horror stories

Jill* (names have been changed to protect the stressed) of New York used to look forward to her big holiday meal as a time to catch up with siblings who she didn’t see very often. Now, since her mother has implemented a policy of inviting everyone who’s alone on Christmas to dinner, she has to deal with an alcoholic ex-stepfather who berates her mom during the meal, swears and stumbles in front of the kids and flirts with her father’s ex-wife. “Although it’s nice idea that no one’s left out, it makes it very difficult to simply sit back and enjoy everyone’s company,” she says.

Melanie of Denver, CO, used to feel tense when sharing dinner with her grandparents. Whether he insulted her grandmother’s cooking or intelligence level, it never took long for her grandfather to say something truly insensitive while the rest of the family cringed.

Victoria of Niagara Falls, NY, has an evil sister in-law. “She’s called me rude, ugly and even fat,” she says. “It’s stressful because I never know what she’s going to pull.” Although Victoria ignores her sister in-law and “fakes nice” at family get-togethers, it’s still a painful and uncomfortable situation.

Have your own crazy family issues that make holiday dinners less than jolly? Don’t fret. Noah St. John, relationship and success expert and founder of offers quick and easy ways to help everyone get along better and hopefully bring the happy back into your holidays.   

Consider the other point of view

Instead of getting angry that Uncle Bob keeps insulting your cooking, think about why he may be saying these mean comments, suggests St. John. Maybe he just found out that his wife is having an affair or perhaps he’s embarrassed because his apartment is too small to host a family gathering. You never truly know what is going on in another person’s mind, so it’s important not to jump to conclusions, and to try to understand why a person may act the way he does.

Act like a stranger

We often assume that we know everything there is to know about our family members and don’t bother asking them about their views on recent news stories, art or even learn about their favorite hobby. Pretend that you’re meeting your relative for the first time and try to take a genuine interest in what he or she is interested in. (When you’re first trying this out, it’s probably best to stay away from hot-button topics like politics or religion!) It’ll give you something to talk about and may help to give you a different perspective on their personalities. Plus, everyone loves to talk about themselves, so it may loosen ‘em up a little bit. And you may just realize that there’s more to cranky cousin Katie than you thought.

Play 20 Questions

The number one secret to getting along is to have your questions outnumber your statements by at least two to one, says St. John. “There is no greater gift you can give to another than the gift of paying attention.” Plus, it’s hard to learn about another person if you’re the one who’s always dominating the conversation. So get over there and start asking questions – open-ended ones starting with “who, what, when, where, why and how” are best. You’ll be surprised at the things you’ll learn.

Don’t ignore the situation

Next time your evil sister in-law calls you stupid, you need to politely confront her. “You are dealing with a bully,” St. John explains. “And when you ignore her, you’re playing right into the bully’s hands.” Instead, confront her with a question. Ask her what she means when she says you’re unintelligent, or say “why would you say something like that.” If you act like you honestly don’t know what the other person is talking about, it can help derail her attack. “Then she’s forced to defend her weak position,” he says. “[which] works especially well in front of others.”

Get support elsewhere

Sick of being the one who always has to act interested and try to maintain the peace? Don’t kill yourself trying to understand why no one else seems to take an interest in you. Instead, realize that your family is what it is. “Just because you’re evolved doesn’t mean the people you grew up with will be too,” says St. John. “It’s great if your family members are the ones who love and support you, but the reality is that doesn’t always happen.” So you need to find others – friends, partners, whoever, who can see you for who you are and give you that love and support that you need. It’ll be easier to accept those who don’t give you that unconditional support if you have a handful of others who do.

If all else fails, leave

If the situation is so bad that you’re miserable, it may be time to give up. Sometimes there’s nothing we can do to make an uncomfortable situation bearable, especially if we’re being insulted or put down. “There is no law that says you have to stay in an abusive situation, even if it’s with family,” says St. John. In fact, often family is where most abuse comes from. Instead, tell everyone that it’s time for you to leave and then start your own, non-stressful tradition.