Expert: How to Deal with Difficult Family Members During the Holidays

This year is the first year I’ve found myself dreading the holidays—which is honestly pretty sad. In part, I am anxious about the holiday stress that comes with spending a lot of time together with our sides of the family…plus the stress of all the to-dos. While I love my family, I am finding myself wanting to learn how to deal with difficult family members during the holiday season to protect my mental health.

Whitney Heins with family during the holidays
I love both sides of my family, but some family members can be difficult!

So rather than be overcome by these negative emotions and family dynamics, I am being proactive. I got with Dr. Aldrich Chan, a neuropsychologist, on how to manage difficult family dynamics during the holidays. As with most things, I have found that a lot of people also don’t live the Norman Rockwell-esque life we may see on Instagram.  

Related: Will Running Help My Stress & Anxiety

They too deal with difficult relatives, complicated family relationships ripe for family drama, stressful situations, awkward silence, and hurtful comments during family gatherings. This is juxtaposed with wonderful family memories, of course. It’s not all bad. But truly, as you grow up and start raising your own family, the most wonderful time of the year can also be the most stressful time.

There was a definite sea change when we became parents during family gatherings. People seem to have a lot of opinions and judgment over different parenting styles, decisions, and the general make-up of our kids (adding insult to injury are cousin clashes!). And I find myself being extra sensitive to these opinions and criticisms as being a good mom is the MOST important thing to me.

Related: Stop “Wife Guilt” from Holding You Back

If you feel like me, the good news is we don’t have to just “take it.” There are ways to handle difficult family members (even toxic family members!) and come out unscathed!

difficult family members during the holidays pin
Pin these expert tips on how to deal with difficult family members during the holidays for later!

Below I share Dr. Chan’s tips on how to handle difficult family members during holiday get-togethers!

Related: Can Running Make You Happy?

How to Deal with Difficult Family Members During the Holidays, according to a Neuropsychologist

  1. Set Boundaries

Before family gatherings, know your personal boundaries. If you feel comfortable, it’s a good idea to share those boundaries with your family members. For example, I have told my siblings that I do not want to hear their opinions about our parenting and parenting choices, including passive aggressive comments about diets, screen time, style choices, or the fact that our kids like us to be near a lot of the time. We live VERY different lives.

Dr. Chan says for setting boundaries with others regarding our children, “begin the conversation by expressing appreciation for the relationship or the positive aspects of the person’s involvement with your children.” Then, he says:

  • State your point of view. Frame your concerns using “I” statements to express your feelings and needs. For example, say, “I feel more comfortable when…” instead of “You always…”
  • Explain your reasons. Next, consider explaining the boundaries you’re setting. Helping others understand the reasons behind your decisions can foster empathy and cooperation. 

Related: How to Get Rid of Mom Guilt for Good

  1. Diffuse Passive Aggressive Comments

    difficult family members during the holidays post
    There are ways to not let passive aggressive comments get to you!

Passive aggressive comments about our children or our parenting get under my skin SO MUCH. I wish I could set up the boundaries to not let them get to me. Maybe one day. In the meantime, Dr. Chan advises to:

  • Ask for Clarification: Respond with a question to gain more insight into the person’s perspective. For example, “Can you help me understand what you mean by that?” This can give them a chance to rephrase or clarify their comment.
  • Choose Your Battles: Not every comment requires a response. Evaluate the situation and decide if it’s worth addressing. Sometimes, the best course of action is to ignore the comment and move on.
  • Educate When Appropriate: If the person seems genuinely misinformed, you can calmly share information about your parenting choices. Keep it positive and informative rather than confrontational.
  1. Address Others “Parenting” Your Children

Another agitation of family gatherings is when other adults “parent” my own children—especially, when I am standing right there! For these situations, Dr. Chans says to:

  • Assess the Intent: Consider the person’s intentions. Are they genuinely trying to help, or are they overstepping boundaries? Understanding their perspective can guide your response.
  • Express Gratitude: If the person is genuinely trying to help, express gratitude for their concern while gently asserting your role as the parent. For example, “I appreciate your care for [child’s name], but we have our own way of handling these situations.”
  • Choose Diplomacy Over Confrontation: If a confrontation is necessary, approach it diplomatically. Use a calm and respectful tone to express your concerns and expectations.
  • Consider the Relationship: Evaluate the relationship with the person involved. If it’s a family member or close friend, you may address the issue more directly than you would with an acquaintance.

Related: Why You Need to Take a Running Break

  1. Deal with Hurtful Comments

When the damage has already been done with criticism and judgement, you still have recourse, says Dr. Chan. You have the power to avoid stepping into the same trap by:

difficult family members during the holidays pin
Pin these expert tips on how to deal with difficult family members during the holidays for later!
  • Changing the Subject. If the conversation steers toward touchy subjects, change it! Talk about something neutral or positive instead. You could even cut the family tension with a funny story about something your kiddo did. If it’s necessary to talk about the sensitive topics, choose a better time perhaps in more privacy.
  • Ward of Criticism. If you’re being criticized or stuck in a sea of negativity at the holiday dinner table, deflect with a positive comment, compliment, express of gratitude, or change the subject (not unlike what we do with our kids!). Try not to be confrontational or defensive, says Dr. Chan. This will just make you feel more stressed! If needed, address the family member individually using “I” statements later.
  • Avoid Triggers. You may know that certain topics are triggers such as screen time rules, types of schooling, athletic feats, or of course, politics! If you can, stay on neutral topics or topics completely different from these like a show, movie, or book.
  • Take a Break! You can have TOO MUCH quality time with your family! It’s okay to take breaks, says Dr. Chan. This is especially true if the conversation is escalating, or you find yourself feeling overwhelmed. “Step outside or into another room to regroup and calm yourself if it begins to be too time together.” (OR, mother runners, go for a run!!)

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  1. Get Curious

Sometimes it takes trying to see the other person’s point of view to calm yourself down. I recently had an argument with a family member. But when I listened to her talk and share her feelings I started to understand where she was coming from.

I think this helped her feel better—but it also helped me feel better, too. It helped me see she wasn’t trying to hurt or disrespect me (despite it feeling that way).

  • Dr. Chan agrees with my experience. He advises to try to understand the perspectives and emotions of your family member. “Empathy can help defuse tense situations and lead to more productive conversations,” he shares.
  • Be an Active Listener. Similarly, Dr. Chan’s advice coincides with my experience! He says being the bigger person and allowing your family member express their perspective, concerns, or frustrations will help them feel heard and you better understand where they are coming from. Paraphrase what they say to you to make sure they know you are listening.

Related: 7 Science-backed Reasons Running Makes You a Better Mom

  1. See the Good

Isn’t it funny how when we are back with our families, we revert right back to how we were as kids? My sister and I got into a HUGE argument a few holidays ago when our daughters got int a huge argument.

It was like I was right back in high school arguing over who got the car. Thankfully, we had a huge discussion afterwards and ironed out decades of issues—and have been even closer ever since!

Dr. Chan has advice to avoid these situations all together:

mom comforting daughter
It really hurts when a difficult family member upsets you child!
  • Stay Calm. Try not to get hijacked by your emotions. Have realistic expectations about how your family members will react to reduce the potential for escalation. For instance, know that your brother-in-law will make fun of X and your father will disapprove of Y, etc. Recognize that some people are just negative, miserable toxic people and there’s nothing you can do to change them! Then take a deep breath when you start to feel your emotions rising and take breaks when needed from the togetherness.
  • Limit alcohol. Alcohol lowers your inhibitions and can make conflicts much worse. Avoid having too much alcohol and try to do the same with the rest of your family if you can!
  • Have an exit strategy. When all else fails, have an exit strategy or institute a time limit beforehand of how long you will be with your family.

Related: Why You Should Take Down Weeks in Running

  1. Stay Grateful.

While this is a stressful time, it is also a time to really take in all we are grateful for.

  • Say Thanks. Express your gratitude for your family right away to start your family events off on the right foot!
  • Control What YOU Can Control. “You cannot control your family’s behavior, but you can control your own reactions and responses,” reminds Dr. Chan. “Try to stay composed, empathetic, and focused on the positive aspects of the holiday.” This will help you hold onto gratitude.
  • Seek help. If you need help approaching difficult family members with patience and understanding, seek the help of a therapist or counselor. My husband and I have done this in the past and I may again this year!

I hope this advice helps you have a good time, even with difficult family members, with lots of happy memories during the holidays this year!

If you need guidance with your training, including schedule adjustments during this stressful time, check out my run coaching services. Also, be sure to check out my free training plans:




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