Ah, the holidays: Cozy evenings by the fire, warm meals with loved ones, gift exchanges—and, for many folks, a whole heap of family drama.
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for people to feel extra stress around the holidays or any time they have to attend a family gathering.
We don’t get to pick our relatives, which means it’s likely there are at least a few people in your group who cause drama, stress, and discomfort when you’re with them. And you definitely aren’t alone if some of your family gatherings have devolved into shouting matches.
But though you may not be able to avoid family drama altogether, there are certain ways to mitigate it. This article will walk you through some of the best ways to keep family drama at bay and enjoy yourself this holiday season (or whenever the next family reunion pops up).
Holiday prep: How to ready yourself for family drama
One of the upsides of holiday gatherings with family is that you usually have some time to prepare. In between wrapping gifts or whipping up food in the kitchen, make some preparations that will keep family drama to a minimum.
Here are a few things to try:
Identify allies in the family
Examine the guest list for your upcoming family event, and think about which family members you might consider “allies”—people you can trust and rely on to help you manage family drama.
Maybe it’s your kind and understanding aunt, or your level-headed brother-in-law, or that strong-willed cousin you only see once a year. Whoever they are, think about reaching out to them with a call or text ahead of time to let them know where you’re head is, and what you need help with.
Some examples of things you might say:
“I’m trying to avoid talking about the election at dinner. Can you help me keep the conversation on track?”
“If you see me stuck talking to Uncle Joe for more than a few minutes, would you mind interrupting so I can step away?”
“Let’s come up with a word that we can use if things get too overwhelming. If I mention _______, it means I need to step out for some fresh air.”
Know your triggers ahead of time
If you have a history of family drama, then old memories (as painful as they may be), can help you get ready to take any new family drama head-on.
Think back to the situational factors that played a role in family drama. Are there specific people who are always at the center of the discord? If so, think about what factors led up to the drama—were there warning signs before things got ugly? Keep those in mind, so you won’t be blindsided if things start going sideways again this year.
While egg nog and mulled wine might be a feature for some families during holiday gatherings, bear in mind that alcohol is likely to make any situation more volatile.
If you’re hosting the party, consider if offering booze to your guests will increase the chances of family drama. And while it may be tempting to have more than a few glasses of wine to get through the family event, it’s probably not worth the risk of lowering your own inhibitions in what could be a stressful situation.
Finally, there’s a good chance certain conversation topics are likely to start drama. Politics and religion are the obvious ones, but there may also be family history that could cause temperatures to rise. Make a list of these topics in your mind, so you can develop ways to shut down or avoid those subjects altogether.
Map out the event and come up with a timeline
Even with all the planning in the world, there are bound to be a few surprises that pop up during a holiday event. These can throw off your carefully laid plans to avoid drama, which is why it pays to do your best to map out the timeline of events coming your way.
Think about how long you plan or want to spend with family. Setting a deadline for when you want to leave can make it much easier to get through a stressful family event, because there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.
Are there specific moments during the event that are likely to cause more drama, or alternatively offer you a chance to maximize your inner peace?
For example, if you always get stuck chatting with an annoying relative while waiting in the food line, maybe you can excuse yourself to the bathroom until you know they’ve sat down with their plate.
Or, if you know at some point a lot of folks plan to go for a walk around the neighborhood, you can plan to use that as an opportunity to get some much-needed alone time at the house, so you can collect yourself and reenergize for the rest of the event.
Setting boundaries to reduce family drama
If there’s one skill you need to make family drama as painless as possible, it’s the ability to set boundaries. This is such a vital life skill, we’ve got an entire article dedicated to setting boundaries, as well as one specifically about setting boundaries with parents.
Those resources are certainly worth a read before the next family event you attend, but let’s drill down into a few boundary-setting techniques specifically for family drama.
Gracefully changing the subject
You may be perfectly capable of avoiding sensitive subjects at the holiday dinner table, but that doesn’t mean your relatives won’t bring up touchy topics, even if it’s just to get a rise out of others.
One of the best tactics for managing this behavior is to simply not give in to it. Before the event, make two lists: one of topics you simply won’t discuss, and the safe topics you’d rather talk about instead.
For example, you might refuse to have discussions about politics, religion, and your own relationship status. Meanwhile, you’re happy to talk about work, holiday food, and sports, because you know these topics rarely lead to drama.
Now, when you hear someone bring up a topic you know will cause an argument, you can do your best to ignore the comment and change the conversation to something else.
For example, if your grandma starts sharing her feelings about the current president, you can try saying something like this: “I haven’t been paying too much attention. Anyway, what’s in this stuffing you made? It’s delicious.”
If that doesn’t work, you can try being more direct: “This year, I’m not talking about politics. I’d love to hear about your upcoming vacation, though. Where is the cruise heading?”
Dealing with unwanted questions
“When are you going to have a baby?”
“Are you seeing anyone new?”
“How’d that medical procedure go?”
“Are they still laying people off at your job?”
There’s no end to the uncomfortable questions family members might ask you during a visit. And though they may simply be curious about your life, sometimes it’s hard for family members to understand that certain questions just aren’t appropriate or wanted.
If you find yourself getting peppered with questions you’d rather not answer, deflection can be your friend. Think of ways you can quickly shut down the question, and move on to something else. Some examples:
“Honestly, I’m not focused on dating right now. Let’s talk about something else. Are you in for touch football later?”
“I’m not ready to talk about that right now. But what’s new with you?”
“Let’s not talk about my job—I’m on vacation! Do you need any help in the kitchen?”
Knowing when and how to step out
Sometimes, your best efforts to set boundaries and change the subject will be useless. Some family members are set on causing drama, or simply can’t let things go.
In such circumstances, an easy out is to remove yourself from the situation physically.
Sometimes, this can be done without making a fuss. You could simply announce that you’re going out for some fresh air, or that you need to make a quick drive to the grocery store for a forgotten ingredient.
If you aren’t able to make an excuse to get yourself away from a negative situation, then you can fall back on your ability to set clear boundaries with the folks who are causing the family drama.
Remember, when setting boundaries, it’s best to use the “if this, then that” formula. As in, “If the conversation turns to my appearance again, I’m going to head home.” Or, “I’m looking forward to a relaxing holiday with everyone. If there are any arguments or things get too rowdy for me, I’ll excuse myself for at least an hour.”
Once you’ve outlined your boundary, then comes the hard part—sticking to it! You have to actually act on your promise to remove yourself; otherwise, your family members will feel like they don’t need to take your boundaries seriously.
Turning inward to prevent family drama
What if you simply can’t step out or step away during a stressful family moment? This might be the case if you’re the one hosting, or if you’re dependent on other people for your transportation home.
In these cases, the best thing to do is find other ways to soothe yourself and keep your cool. Deep breaths might feel like basic advice, but it works—if you feel the stress in the room rising, pause and take a few deep breaths before you do anything else.
You may also want to bring a small token that comforts you and keep it in your pocket or bag, like a small stuffed animal or a keychain. When you sense holiday drama coming, discreetly touch the item. Allow it to ground you, and remind you that eventually, you’ll be done with this holiday and can head back to your drama-free space.
Finally, consider having a few truthful statements you can pull up in your mind when you start to feel the drama creeping in on you. Here are a few you can rely on:
I don’t have to participate in any conversation or activity unless I want to.
It’s OK to say no to things that cause my stress or discomfort.
I can still hold love for my family, even when I’m feeling frustrated with them.
I have gotten through family events before, and will get through this one as well.
Even if this event will be hard, I can look forward to [a good meal, seeing certain people, exchanging gifts, playing with the dogs, etc.]
We have plenty of articles on the art of mindfulness, which can be your best asset when it comes to dealing with family drama. Here are more resources to check out:
You don’t have much control over how other people behave at family events, and sometimes, drama is unavoidable. But you do have control over how you react, and how much other people’s drama impacts your well-being.
Take the time you need to prepare yourself emotionally and mentally before the event, so you’re ready to minimize drama from the moment you say your greetings.
Set boundaries, and don’t let others walk over them. Even if this means being firm or distant, your own mental well-being is what matters.
With these techniques, you can set yourself up for a family event with as little drama as possible, so you can truly have a happy holiday.