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Dear Charlie: How Can I Deal With Problematic Family Members During the Holidays?

Updated: Nov 21, 2022

Dear Charlie is an advice column that allows readers to ask Charlie for guidance on how to deal with problems. Whether it’s about love, friendships, or frustrations, Charlie is here to give you tips and ideas for tackling life’s everyday challenges. Readers can ask Charlie for advice through DM via our Instagram @liubknews, or anonymously through this form.


The holiday season is upon us and for some people that means good cheer, family dinners, and making warm memories. For others it can be a tough time.

Spending time with family could also mean having to deal with toxic or simply problematic family members making the holiday gatherings far from festive.

Family gatherings can place you in an almost trapped situation. You are expected to stay for dinner, engage in conversation, greet relatives you may not have seen in a while, or have family outings. There’s a range of judgmental comments that can occur at these gatherings: from snide remarks on your current partner, or physical appearance to full blown arguments about political ideas and bringing up memories that could be painful could feel never-ending.

Here are some tips that may help make this holiday season and coping with that toxicity a bit more bearable.

1. Having Clear Boundaries in Place and Focusing on Things You Can Control


It may seem like you are at the mercy of your parents and family members when it comes to the holidays, but there are some boundaries that you can be sure to set before the gathering or outing.

For instance, if you know that you can only tolerate being around a certain person for about an hour or two, then plan to stay no longer than that. Ask the host for a definitive list of who would be visiting so that there are no surprises, and if someone is coming whom you don’t have a good relationship with, plan to take small breaks, such as a walk, or going to the store if needed.

If there are topics that are off-limits, before sitting at the dinner table, you can respectfully say something along the lines of “Please don’t say anything about my body or ask about my relationships, it is something I would like to not discuss tonight.”

In addition, let’s say your parents ask you to spend the night over at their house. If that triggers you or stirs up uneasy emotions, then try staying at a hotel or friend’s house instead. If you are visiting, instead of having your family pick you up from the airport, try taking a taxi or asking a friend to pick you up instead.

Knowing what you can handle from your family and finding ways to minimize your contact or time with them can be a great help, especially in situations where you can’t not show up.

2. Plan Activities to Keep Everyone Busy


It is often at or after dinner where the negative comments can start to fly around, mainly because there is a lull in the action. Instead of waiting in awkward silence for your family member to start the brigade, plan to play board games or suggest movies to watch.

When everyone is distracted and living in the moment, it minimizes the opportunities for those verbal attacks.

3. Make Time For Yourself


Ensure that you make some time and space for yourself and make the holidays “yours.”

After the potentially draining time with your family, it can be relieving to journal about your feelings or call a friend or therapist if you have one. Venting about the things you wish you could have said can help you feel better.

Moreover, taking time to indulge in your own hobbies or making holiday plans with those you do want to hang out with will take your mind off things and give you a greater sense of fulfillment.

4. Changing Your Perspective


Sometimes you may go into a family gathering with hope, thinking this time will be different, thinking that if you argue back or explain your side of things, they will magically understand. That’s understandable because at the end of the day you just want your parents or other family members to see how much you’ve changed, how much you’re your own person and all the hard work you may have been doing to better yourself.

An important point to remember is that you are not responsible for other people’s feelings. You can’t control whether your mom “approves” of your partner, or if your dad “approves” of your job.

It is better to acknowledge that truth, and while it doesn’t make what people say hurt less, it can help to change your perspective so that you don’t fall down a self deprecating spiral. Seeking to gain your family member’s approval will only control you in the end.

While you can’t prepare for everything your family throws at you this holiday season, we’re hoping that these tips will help you put yourself first. Be well friends, and until next time!

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