Linda Lewis Griffith

How to deal with difficult family during the holidays

Every family has its share of difficult members. They’re the folks with the shortest fuses or most fragile egos. They’re easily disrupted. They’re seldom pleased.

During the rest of the year, these challenging kinfolk are easier to manage. When there’s less stress or fewer expectations, their highstakes needs are more likely to be met. Cranky Grandma’s criticisms about the children or the food can be dismissed when dining at Tahoe Joe’s. But bring her to the house, where you’ll be opening presents or playing games, and her complaints begin to rankle.

There are more ways for family members to be difficult than there are lights on the tree. Some have substance-abuse problems. They may arrive high or get hammered throughout the day. Relatives are caught in a bind when Aunty pours herself a glass of Schnapps even though she’s fresh out of rehab.

Others bring up inappropriate topics. A brother-in-law insists on talking politics, even though the discussion always turns hostile and people leave the table in tears.

A disgruntled sister-in-law feels no one likes her and is pouty within minutes of arrival. An uncle professes to hate the holidays and spends the afternoon sniping at everyone he sees.

Of course, the amount of difficulty is relative. Each of has idiosyncrasies. But the truly difficult run the risk of ruining the entire day. They sap energy we’d like to use interacting with others. Their presence and behavior contaminate the group’s mood. Everyone’s on edge. It’s nearly impossible to relax.

Still, they’re family, and we don’t want to exclude them. We love each of our children, parents and siblings, even though some are terribly vexing to be around. We also have to embrace all of their partners, viewpoints and lifestyles. When an in-law joins the fold, the new person becomes part of our lives. Period.

Some clans have it easy. They have one or two difficult members in their midst. In other households it’s a different story . “The police have been called several times to our house,” one man casually mentioned. “That’s what happens when we’re all together.”


Identify which specific members need extra support or monitoring. Naming the players and labeling their needs means you’re already ahead of the game.

Let go of judgments. It’s easy to harbor judgments: “If he’d just control himself he wouldn’t be so difficult.” But we are all doing the best we can. And foisting it back on the member never gets the problem solved. You’re having this person for the holidays. The issue belongs to you.

Devise a plan. Ask yourself, “What would help this person feel welcome and at ease?” Grandpa may need someone to spend time with him one-on-one. Hostile teenager does best when someone compliments her when she walks in the room.

Enlist others’ help. Other members who aren’t as difficult can be your assistants. Ask your mother-inlaw to kindly visit with your frail, elderly great-aunt.

Plan a group activity. Play a board game. Set up a puzzle. Try out one of the newest gifts. Create an inclusive ambience of fun and frivolity.

Allow individual members their physical and emotional space. Difficult members may need time to themselves. That’s fine. Don’t force them to fit in.

Keep the event short. There’s no need to drag festivities out. Set a pre-determined end point. Difficult members will relish the chance to escape. More relaxed folks may choose to hang longer.

Free yourself of expectations. Even all your bestlaid plans won’t change the people in your clan. Do what you can with who you have. You won’t have to this again for 12 months.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit lindalewis  .