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How to Navigate Difficult Family Relationships

How to Deal with Difficult FamilyHow do you deal with your dysfunctional, toxic, or difficult family members?

The holidays usually mean getting together with family. Family is a blessing in many ways, but it can also present challenges – differing opinions, disrespect, misunderstandings, reminders of past hurts, or plain old getting on each other’s nerves.

If you’re anticipating some challenging situations with your difficult family members this holiday season, you don’t have to feel like a victim. You can plan ahead, use these strategies, and take action.

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries

One of the most straight-forward things you can do to deal with unpleasant family situations is to avoid them if possible. Boundaries don’t have to come with a side-order of guilt. Empower yourself to say “no” to things you don’t want to do or that will have a negative impact on your own well-being. One of the joys of adulthood is realizing that you have choices. You don’t have to go to your in-laws for Christmas every year and you don’t have to listen to your uncle’s racist jokes. You can politely decline invitations or leave early if things get uncomfortable. Listen to what’s right for you and act accordingly. There is nothing wrong with considering your own needs.

Have an escape plan

Despite our best intentions and efforts, sometimes things do go awry. Psychotherapist Kate Pieper, LMFT created a distress signal with her kids to use at holiday functions. “Our family has always used, ‘My tummy is a little upset right now.’ It’s code for ‘this person is driving me nuts and I need to get away from them ASAP. We don’t ask questions about the distress code; we just zoom-in to rescue!” So, plan ahead with your friend or partner and have a phrase or signal to let them know you’re ready to leave.

Be aware of past resentments

Sometimes it’s not just what’s going on in the present that interferes with your holiday fun. Your family Christmas party isn’t the best time to rehash old grievances or try to resolve conflicts. Marriage and Family Therapist Michelle Farris recommends: “Watch past assumptions or resentments that get in the way of enjoying the holidays. Your thoughts set the tone but you can look for small ways to connect. Talk about an old memory that makes everyone smile or a favorite movie. Create a bridge by focusing on the good! It begins with you!”

How to Deal with Dysfunctional Family at the HolidaysSet a positive intention

Positive intentions can be powerful ways to improve challenging interpersonal interactions because when you set a positive intention, you start to look for ways to carry it out. Alicia Taverner, LMFT recommends setting intentions about how you want to feel and who you want to connect with before heading out to holiday gatherings. “Thinking, ‘It would be nice if I felt joy at the company Christmas party,’ is different than saying, ‘I intend to feel joy at the company Christmas party’. When you hear a negative comment, or receive an ugly sweater from Aunt Marge, your intention of connection or gratitude will shine through, and you will get through that interaction more gracefully than if you hadn’t set forth a positive intention.”

Be open and curious

If you want to keep your holiday gathering positive, try going with an open mind and curious attitude. “Oftentimes people go into family gatherings on edge or defensive and on alert for conflict,” says Stephanie Macadaan, LMFT. This is understandable if you’ve had a strained relationship or conflict in the past. However, when you assume the worst, you can unconsciously create the exact situation that you’re trying to avoid. “Instead, go with a goal of learning one new thing about each person in attendance. This openness creates an energy that allows for curiosity, the sharing of experiences and connection, a powerful recipe for happiness,” suggests Macadaan.

Surround yourself with positive people and activities

Setting boundaries doesn’t mean isolating yourself. If you’re feeling down or lonely, you may be inclined to just curl up at home and avoid everyone and everything festive, but we all have something meaningful to offer. Giving to others, no matter how small, is a win-win; both the giver and receiver benefit. Dr. Jennifer Huggins reminds us that there’s nothing like giving to others to boost our own mood. She suggests “…notice the mood-lifting benefits that giving a stranger a genuine smile, bringing a batch of homemade cookies to your coworkers, or volunteering at a soup kitchen on a holiday gives you.”

Create your own “family”

The reality is that not everyone has positive family interactions at the holidays or any other day of the year. And I know that even when you do your absolute best to set a positive tone, be open and curious, try to keep the conversation light and positive, and take care of yourself, some people are going to push your buttons anyway. You can choose whether to react or not. You have that power.

You also have a choice about whether to see or how much time to spend with difficult family members. You don’t have to subject yourself to stressful or toxic family situations. You can create a “family” of your own choosing by gathering with friends, neighbors, or your faith community. There isn’t one right way to celebrate. Do what’s best for you!

Trying to do things differently this year can be hard, especially when the holidays are steeped in traditions and expectations. Some people prefer to make a radical change all at once and others feel more comfortable easing into change a piece at a time. Again, you can do it your way. I think what’s most important is that it feels true and right for you. You deserve to enjoy your holiday and not let difficult people overshadow the spirit of the season.



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©2016 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.

How to Navigate Difficult Family Relationships

Sharon Martin, LCSW

Sharon Martin is an emotional wellness speaker, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Her San Jose based practice specializes in helping over-stressed, high achieving adults and teens learn to embrace their imperfections and grow happiness. Her personal journey of overcoming perfectionism and people-pleasing traits, inspired her passion for this work. Sharon is the author of Setting Boundaries Without Guilt: A Workbook to Move You From Doormat to Empowerment. Sharon also enjoys teaching blogging and writing classes for therapists. You can find her on Twitter, instagram, and her website.

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APA Reference
Martin, S. (2018). How to Navigate Difficult Family Relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 11, 2018, from


Last updated: 7 Jan 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 7 Jan 2018
Published on All rights reserved.