Your Map for Navigating the Holidays with Extended Family

by Guest Writer: Millicent Parsons

The holidays can be a minefield for family drama. Whether it’s overbearing in-laws, rude relatives, or too many people to visit, there can be a lot to navigate when the family gets together.

But you don’t have to let your family ruin the holidays for you. With some preparation and a touch of tact, you can survive—and enjoy!—the holidays with your extended family. Just follow these tips to prepare yourself and your next family get-together will be a piece of (fruit) cake!

Plan ahead

Does everyone expect a visit from you and then get pouty when you can’t squeeze them in? Nothing hurts more than unmet expectations, whether it’s a child not getting that present they wanted or an in-law who missed you at their annual holiday party. So plan early with your spouse whom and when you can visit this year, and then share those plans with your family members ahead of time so they know what to expect.

If it’s impossible to visit every obligatory relative each year, start a rotation where you see certain people every other year. Or celebrate Christmas with some family on a—gasp!—different day than Christmas to fit them all in. The key is to be flexible and communicate your plans in advance so no one is taken by surprise when the holidays roll around.

Make some rules

Sometimes the biggest stress of visiting family for the holidays isn’t the extended family so much as your spouse’s and kids’ behavior around said family. If your spouse can’t get along with your relatives but always sides with his, or your kids suddenly become spoiled brats at Grandma’s house, it’s time to establish some ground rules.

First, address any tension between your spouse or you and family members. Agree to have each other’s backs and be a team rather than “picking sides” if an issue comes up. Also identify any private information or couples’ decisions that shouldn’t be discussed with relatives.

As for the kids, remind them that Santa can still see them when they’re out of town and that as guests in someone else’s home they need to be on their best behavior or there will be consequences.

Avoid awkward or inappropriate conversations

Now that you’re at the big family get-together, how do you keep the inappropriate questions and heated debates at bay? Well, no guarantees, but there’s some things you can do to help.

Discreetly excuse yourself when undesirable conversations arise, or politely redirect the conversation. Avoid bringing up sensitive topics yourself, and steer clear of known instigators. If all else fails, go find something productive to do away from nosey relatives, like tidying the guest bathroom for the hundredth time or shoveling the nice relatives’ cars out of the snow.

Be polite and friendly

Manners are cheap and always appreciated—unlike that gift you picked out for your in-laws last year.

If you can be polite and cheerful at family gatherings, your chances of surviving unscathed will increase. All but the prickliest of family members like the “nice” relative, after all. So offer sincere compliments, ask others neutral questions about themselves, or keep your mouth shut, as appropriate. Don’t gossip or complain. And look for ways to be helpful when you think you’re going to crack (see above).  

But do have boundaries

Now, you don’t have to be a door mat if a family member does something truly offensive. The key is to be the bigger person and respond with maturity.

Nothing satisfies a Grinchy relative more than getting others worked up, so don’t react to rude behavior. Set boundaries and preserve the Christmas spirit by not participating in their drama. Respond with an even tone and brief statements when someone is rude, and let them know you can’t socialize with them if they continue to be offensive.

Remind yourself that their behavior is a reflection of them and you aren’t responsible for their feelings and actions.

Be flexible

No family gathering is ever going to be perfect, so cut yourself and your loved ones some slack. Focus on what’s important (hint: it’s family) and let everything else go.

And if things do start to go downhill, use these tips to redirect the drama and bring back the Christmas spirit, even if only for yourself. You don’t have to let your family’s baggage get you down. Prepare yourself to handle the crazy, and maybe be careful carrying your aunt’s heavy suitcase up the icy walk.