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Family knows how to push our buttons like no one else. They’ve known us since the beginning and know exactly what to say to turn you back into a pouting 8 year old. Anyone else need a survival guide?

I’ve had my share of screaming family arguments. They leave me feeling hurt, angry, horribly unbalanced and almost never lead to anything positive. There’s been quite a bit of trial and error, but these are the things that help me remain calm and collected during sometimes difficult family time.

If you know who someone is, then you know what to expect from them.

It could be a constant stream of questions. Or maybe it’s the look your mom gets on her face when she sees your new haircut. Or how your brother starts every freakin’ sentence with “You really should…” Or any of the other fun family stereotypes that drive us batty.

You feel put on the spot, completely misunderstood and unheard because, quite frankly, you don’t ever intend on marrying some nice boy or “settling down” in the way they think you should.

Don’t let it hook you. Yes, easier said than done, but when you know a question is coming, why allow it to make you angry? Prepare for it instead. Have a joke ready in response. Stuff a roll in your mouth. Or just smile hugely, lean in and give your inquisitor an enormous hug.

The trick is in knowing you have no obligation to respond unless you really want. If you do choose to respond, here are some tips to avoid saying something you’ll ultimately regret..

Photo by Computerjoe

Don’t drink or do drugs if you know they have a negative impact on your emotions and behavior.

Pretty simple, actually. If your inhibitions will be lowered, leaving you more likely to get into an argument, don’t imbibe. You can always meet up with your favorite cousin later and discuss over a drink how grandma detailed every moment of her last bowel movement while serving the roasted potatoes with brown sauce. Yum!

Don’t expect more from people than is fair to expect.

Relationships go in phases, and you will not get along with everyone all the time. Some family members are simply different than you. You don’t see the world in the same way, and thus, you don’t get why your aunt prefers to live in an elaborate apartment in New York City while she may never understand your desire to travel through the Mekong Delta with only a backpack and shoes.

Accept it with grace and ease and talk about the things you have in common. I find children seem to be a binding point for many. They can distract you with their games, and two adults who disagree on everything can usually find something they both love about the smallest members of the family.

Make time to take care of yourself.

Do you need occasional time alone? Would you prefer your deeply offensive uncle stay far away? Are you vegetarian? Make a list of the things you most need in order to feel sane and comfortable.

Photo by Lefthand

Of course, there’s a fine line between addressing your needs and being flat out needy, so perhaps choose your top three and work toward making them a reality.

At first, family may be offended, but over time, I promise they’ll get used to it if they’re rational and see that you’re making an effort to be part of the group in other ways. If they’re not rational, there’s no point in rearranging your life and behavior to accommodate someone who will likely never be pleased.

Pick your battles very wisely

Sometimes we want things our own way because we’re feeling pressured, disrespected or unheard. While these may all be good reasons to stand up for yourself, you have to decide whether the family Christmas dinner or New Year’s party is the best time to address them.

Fight only for what you need to take care of yourself, not for what you think should be or what you believe is fair. Fair tends to lose meaning, anyway, when faced with so many personalities, desires and personal philosophies.

If you do fight, do so with humor and sensitivity.

Don’t approach anyone in the throes of anger. Instead, take some time to compose yourself, focus on which issues are most important to you, then address those things directly. State them as a reflection of your feelings and experience, not as an accusation.

Example: It makes me uncomfortable when you make racist comments in front of my African girlfriend.

Take some time to compose yourself, focus on which issues are most important to you, then address those things directly. State them as a reflection of your feelings and experience, not as an accusation.

If your family member makes excuses, don’t get sucked into an attempt to justify yourself. Just repeat, I hear what you’re saying, but it makes me uncomfortable when you make racist comments in front of my girlfriend.

It isn’t easy to remain calm and friendly while restating the same thing like a broken record, but you’ll be surprised at how well this works.

Don’t discuss past details, either.

Details tend to lead to more details and pointless discussion. Next thing you know, you’re screaming about five years ago when Uncle Phil trotted out his travel tidbit of how Brazil is beautiful, if only there weren’t so many brown people it. Yes, Uncle Phil is a schmuck, but it’s not going to address your situation sitting at the dinner table in the here and now.

Walk away if you feel you’re not getting the response you want or feel yourself getting angry.

Everyone Loses It Sometimes

It’s not an inexcusable character flaw to make a mistake. Calm down. Try again or don’t. Take time alone. Or choose another way to disconnect from the drama.

Photo by Symic

Remember, losing your temper is not the end of the world, no matter what anyone else says about it, and no one is exempt from slipping up.

All in all, it’s important to see each visit as its own entity. No matter how much history, practice or experience you have with a person, what happens during one visit exists as a distinct event from anything else that has ever happened in your life and times with your family member. Each family event is just one opportunity to add a bead to the string of positive experiences.

Then, you go back to your own life.


How do you cope with family stress over the holidays? Share your insights and experience in the comments.

Family + KidsParenting


About The Author

Leigh Shulman

Leigh Shulman is a writer, photographer and mom living in Salta, Argentina. There, she runs Cloudhead Art, an art & education group that creates collaborative art using social media to connect people and resources. You can read about her travels on her blog The Future Is Red

  • Abbie

    Great suggestions, Leigh! I live on the west coast and my family lives on the east coast, so my solution is to go back during the “off-season” (October or Feb/March) and the visit is much less stressful!!!

    • Leigh Shulman

      I have a couple friends who do the same thing. You also find cheaper flights and don’t have to navigate the airports. Which I’m sure also goes a long way in stress reduction.

  • Tim Patterson

    Good tips here — I count my blessings to come home to a family without much tension and with a whole lot of love and support.

    • Leigh Shulman

      It’s really a blessing to feel that way about family. I feel lucky in the same way. Of course, we have our moments, but overall, I can’t complain (too much).

  • Candice Walsh

    Currently drinking a beer and shouting back and my forth to my mother about whether or not my coat is actually a long coat or a short coat. Thank you for this.

    • Leigh Shulman

      So what was the verdict? Long or short?

      Noah and I are known as the drinkers in the family because we always bring something to family dinners. Grandma and grandpa’s 60th anniversary, our room was where everyone stored their liquor so they didn’t have to wake the kids to refill their cups (This was pre-Lila). We still occasionally have a blender shoved at us when we walk in the door.

      So much for my don’t drink guideline! I guess it’s all a balance, though. As with everything else.

  • Turner

    I just know I’ll get politics involved this year…

    • Leigh Shulman

      Hehe. Is that a plan or a concern?

      But yes, politics. I come from a family who likes to debate politics of any kind in loud booming voices while pacing back and forth and gesticulating wildly. If not accustomed to it, you’d be worried a physical fight would break out. But it’s just their way.

      Me? I stopped the women’s rights, Israeli politics, environment, how-religious-should-you-be and what’s-the-best-way-to-raise-a-child discussions a while ago. Now I just sit quietly with the popcorn.

  • Tyler Clarke

    my best friend has been in an Anger Management class for 2 months now, he improved a lot when dealing with anger.-~:

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