How to Deal with Family Members that Stress You Out or Drive You Crazy
The trouble with the holiday season is that you have to go home and visit with family, family that can often drive you crazy and stress you out. While there's no way to completely escape those cringe-worthy and awkward situations, there are ways you can deal with them more effectively.
The holidays are a stressful time for everyone, especially if you're visiting family. Slow down and relax—the first thing to remember is that whatever situation you're in, whatever conversation you're having, it'll be over eventually. With that firmly in mind, you'll be able to tackle any other situation.
Understand What's Happening to You: A Brief Primer on Stress
We've gone into detail about what stress actually does to you before. When you're dealing with family, you're dealing with acute stressors that can be draining if you deal with them over and over for the course of an afternoon or evening.
What Stress Actually Does to You and What You Can Do About It
Stress is an unpleasant fact of life. We all experience it for various reasons, and we all try to…Read more
You know what it feels like to be in those awkward situations, or those conversations where you can tell your family is grilling you on something you'd rather not discuss, so it's not difficult to identify. When you have that emotional response however, there are other things going on in your body. Your heart rate accelerates, and your system is flooded with stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine, all due to your body's fight-or-flight response ticking on so you're aware, alert, and ready to handle the situation. Unfortunately, dealing with an irritating family member who won't leave you alone isn't something you can deal with by running fast or climbing high. Once you understand what's going on, cooler heads can prevail and you can try to see through your emotional response and de-escalate the situation.
Deal with Stressful Situations by Relaxing and Disengaging
Now that you know what's going on in your body when your annoying uncle asks why you never visit, or your parents demand that you help them troubleshoot their computer before you've even had a chance to put down your bags, now you can begin to deal with the situation in a calm and rational way. First of all, understand that you have the right to be unhappy and upset with the way they're treating you: but that doesn't mean you have the right to make them feel the way you're feeling. In fact, it'll only make the situation worse.
Take a few deep breaths, and try to minimize the stressful situation in your mind. Take a few deep breaths, and say whatever you need to say in order to disengage and de-escalate the situation. If your family is begging you to look at their PC, tell them you'll take a look after dinner, or tell them that you'd like to put your bags down first and then you'll go take a look. Let them know you'll ask them for more information when you're ready. If your annoying uncle asks why you haven't visited, laugh or shrug it off and complain about the high cost of travel, and excuse yourself. If you're worried you'll say something you'll regret, tell your family member that you'll take it up with them later. That'll give you time to calm down and think about how you want to approach the situation, if you want to revisit it at all.
Ultimately, the goal is to get out of the immediate confrontation so you can acknowledge to yourself that you're having a physical and emotional reaction to a stressful situation. Sometimes that's enough to give your brain room to push through the fog of frustration and anger. If it's not enough, practice a coping mechanism like deep breathing or visualizing yourself in a relaxing place to help you calm down a bit before you have to go back to the fray.
If All Else Fails, Hack the Conversation
Excusing yourself and de-stressing will only get you so far. There will inevitably be someone in the family who just won't let the matter drop if you want to excuse yourself or end the conversation. They'll keep prodding you to get a reaction, or they'll follow you around to try and get you to say something. They won't let you leave the conversation alone until they're satisfied with what you say. In those cases, it's time to bring out the dark side and do a little social engineering.
Turn the question around so they're the stressed party. In many cases, the most awkward questions can be defused by answering the question with a question. Return fire with "How would you feel if I asked you that," or "What do you think I'll say," forcing them to answer their own question, or at least tip their hand to what they want to hear from you.
Be sarcastically polite. We're not saying you should turn on the snark, but being dismissive of the question or offering a half-hearted answer will in many cases let the questioner know that you think their little interrogation is silly. Sometimes that's enough to get them to leave you alone.
Go on the offensive. As in, ask them something they'll have trouble with before they ask you. Be careful, this can turn into a sparring match, but sometimes it's better to approach the annoying family member with a smile and start the conversation yourself so you can direct its course. If they approach you and start asking all the questions, you're on the defensive.
Keep them talking. Often, the most annoying family members with the more intrusive questions really just want to hear themselves talk, even if they think they want to grill you for juicy information. Offer up only the minimum amount of information required to get them to launch into a story, or offer it up with an open-ended question at the end so they do the talking. Respond to questions like "So when are you going to have kids" with "I had a friend who waited until her 40s, can you believe that?" It doesn't outright say that's what you want to do, but it does get them talking about what they think about the matter. When they start, listen politely and ask for additional information at every opening. Doing so makes them talk to you, instead of the other way around.
Get rid of them. If you're helping in the kitchen and you're being grilled by a family member, ask them to do something that takes them out of the kitchen, even if it's for a moment. If it's easier for you to escape, do it, and offer to get something from storage, or go find out what everyone else is doing and whether they're hungry, thirsty, or bored. It's another escape mechanism, but it works.
Remember, They're Family: You Don't Have to Like Them
Family is important, but there's no rule that says you have to like or get along with everyone you're related to. If you do, you're very lucky, but just being related to someone doesn't automatically mean the two of you will get along in every situation, share the same views, or even enjoy each other's company. The holidays—that time of year when everyone is stuck together no matter what—is a particularly trying time when you know that family members you don't get along with will be present.
It's a romantic to assume you can push through the stress and irritation at the Thanksgiving dinner table to suddenly become close with a family member you can't stand. If it happens, you're lucky, but it's unlikely. Be kind, respectful, and cordial, but don't force yourself to spend extended periods with someone you dislike just because you "feel like you should." Be assertive enough to excuse yourself from awkward conversations, and choose to spend your time with family members you enjoy instead. In the end, you'll have a happier, healthier, stress-free holiday with family.