Therapist Laura Tejada Offers Suggestions for How to Deal with Difficult Family Members During the Holidays

The holidays are upon us, which means a time of joy, celebrating and enjoying the company of family. But as we all know, amidst all of those cherished memories comes a bag full of stress and pressure. As much as we love our relatives, we don’t always like them, and have to find ways of coping to get through this season full of quality time.

PEOPLE Every Day host Janine Rubenstein talked to couple and family therapist Dr. Laura Tejada, who shared some of her tips on how to survive even the most challenging of family members while gathered over a table full of food.

When navigating the treacherous battleground of relatives with differing opinions, Tejada suggests first looking inward.

“What are you up for? What are you available emotionally, physically, mentally to do,” she suggests asking yourself as you interact with those you don’t always agree with. “Weigh the cost benefit of, ‘Is this the time to take on Uncle Al?’ Or Is it going to be better for you, your children, your partner to just smile and say, ‘Yeah, Uncle Al, I know that you feel pretty strongly about this,’ and pass the stuffing.”

Woman cutting meat for family and friends on table

Woman cutting meat for family and friends on table

Family gatherings can come with hidden conversational landmines, and for the sake of the event, it can require putting your needs to the side.

“It feels sometimes almost like a capitulation when we make those decisions in the best interest of another party, specifically children and partners,” Tejada explains, noting that she has already made decisions about how to interact with some of her husband’s family members out of respect for him. “The other thing is, honestly, no amount of verbal judo is going to get Uncle Al to change his mind over Cousin Jan’s pie and Cousin Mary’s coffee, so I might as well enjoy the pie and coffee.”

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If all else fails, Tejada recommends turning the event into a game of Relative Bingo. “Uncle Al just said that, check, Aunt Gertrude [is] talking about immigration policy again, check,” she says about the method. “I don’t know that that eases the stress, but it’s a cognitive way of kind of coping and bracketing that experience.”

Tejada adds that it’s important to recognize how you’re perceived when entering family situations and knowing what your role is in that specific dynamic. “In my family, I’m not Laura Tejada, PhD, I’m Laura, the bossy big sister,” she admits. “When I open my mouth about whatever, I have to recognize that I may be thinking I’m Laura, the expert in small children in pandemics, but I’m really not. I’m still just Laura, the big sister.”

It’s important not to get riled up, even if other family members are heading off the deep end in one of their endless rants. Tejada points to the concept of differentiation, which means “that you are still intimately and emotionally connected to your loved ones, but you are not flowing in the same emotions as them.” So while your cousins or brother-in-law are angry about something, you can recognize the feeling without having to take it on yourself.

While it’s all easier said than done, especially before the wine kicks in, Tejada admits it’s never a bad thing to take mini-breaks when it becomes too much to handle — perhaps even coming up with a “signal” that it’s time to step away. “For my husband and [me] it’s, ‘Hey, why don’t we take a walk before the sun sets?’ That secret code of, ‘I need help getting out of this interaction’ or ‘I’ve had all of Aunt Gertrude I can take right now.'”

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There are also family members with whom you still have open wounds or don’t feel entirely comfortable having around your children. Tejada believes it’s important to identity these potential instances ahead of time, no matter how difficult they may be, in order to prepare yourself and plan how to remain focused on the reasons you are there.

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It’s easy to dwell on the negative aspects of family, but we shouldn’t forget to show our appreciation for the smaller displays of love that we often take for granted. “One of the things we don’t do in families and with our partners is attend to basic courtesy,” Tejada admits. “It’s that, ‘Hello, how are you? Good to see you. Please. Thank you. This was lovely.’ I find with families, sometimes we forget to do that.”

Tejada stresses the significance of showing your affection in small ways so that your family still feels your love. Whether it’s helping set things up or putting things out, finding the value in courtesies where you can while balancing the more challenging aspects of holiday reunions.

“Easier said than done, but that’s on me, not them,” Tejada concludes. “That in a way puts myself kind of taking charge of those interactions. Whatever they do is up to them, but I’m taking charge of my piece and that seems to feel better at the end of the day.”

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