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December 26, 2013
by LuAnn Pierce, LCSW

Dealing with Difficult Relatives During Family Gatherings

December 26, 2013 02:55 by LuAnn Pierce, LCSW

We’ve all been there – you have a special family gathering and someone creates a scene. While it happens occasionally in the best of families, in some families it is expected – and dreaded. Uncle Bobby has too much to drink and insults one of the in-laws, or the teenager sulks, yells and pouts so much that people don’t want to be in the same room with him/her. Despite your specific family dynamics, there are ways to address or prevent some of these scenarios so that everyone (that includes you) is not miserable.

Coming to Terms with the Humanness of Others (and Ourselves)

If you are dreading the usual insult(s) from your mom about your weight, or Uncle Bobby’s bigoted opinions and comments, spend some time preparing for the inevitable. Think about family gatherings past and examine the comments or situations that caused you the most pain or upset. Consider why these things disturb you so much.

If your mom’s criticism about your weight pushes your buttons, consider the reason for this hot button. In many cases, it will go back to childhood. With parents, there is usually an element of feeling ‘not good enough’ to make mom/dad proud. After all, we all want our parents to love and accept us.

What we have to come to terms with as adults is the fact that they are flawed. That’s right – your mom and dad are simply humans with flaws and limitations that even parents often can’t overcome.

And Uncle Bobby? Yet another example of a human with a differing thoughts, opinions and beliefs than yours – just like most everyone in the world.

Part of growing up is coming to terms with this reality – our parents/relatives are simply human and flawed. They make mistakes and do things that are hurtful. This is usually not intentional, but simply a result of their humanness. Who among us can’t relate to being human and flawed?

So – ask yourself the following:

Am I flawed in any way? If the answer is no, call a therapist now.

Do I make comments that others may be hurt or offended by at times?

How do I feel when people fail to understand my position?

Is it necessary that everyone agree with me, or that I agree with everyone else?

Do I turn myself inside-out to agree with or please everyone else?

Do I want/need approval from others to be okay with who I am today?

Do I feel the need to control how others think?

What would it take for me to allow my beloved mother or Uncle Bobby to have their opinions without expecting them to think/agree with me?

Who says that my way is the only way or the right way?

Set Boundaries and Be Prepared for Backlash

Remember this – you can set boundaries, but they are your boundaries. You can only control what you do, say, think or feel (sometimes). You can’t control what others think, say or do – if it were possible, I would have figured out how to make it work, I promise. If someone says something that you find personally offensive or off limits, you get to choose your response. Consider these scenarios before the family gathering so you will feel more in control of your responses and emotions.

If your mom says something hurtful about your weight (or anything else) instead of trying to convince her to love you as you are (or helping her understand all the things you have done to lose weight recently), you may choose to be assertive and set a boundary. That might sound like: “I appreciate your concern about my health. However, I have decided not to talk to people about my weight as I find it upsetting. Please respect my wishes about this.”

If mom persists, simply remind her of your choice and make the same request: “As I said, I do not want to talk about this. Unless we can change the subject now, I am going to another room.”

You don’t have any control over your mother, what she says or thinks. You can control how you respond, and begin to teach her to treat you differently. Setting boundaries lets other people know what you are willing to tolerate, and what you will not.

In the example above, you are saying what you want and why. You asked for your mother to honor your request. If she pushes your limits – tries to cross your boundary – you simply reiterate your position and state what will happen if she persists.

Is it unnerving to do this when you have never set boundaries with mom? You bet it is! Other people often don’t like it when we establish boundaries. They will try to test the limits, and you must stand firm if you want to teach them to respect your wishes.

For boundaries to be effective, they must be consistent. We can’t expect people to guess what we want or how we want to be treated if we don’t tell them. I think it is a good idea to let people know when you ‘change the rules’ so they can honor your wishes. The example above does that (nicely).

Acceptance Does Not Equal Approval, But Respect

If Uncle Bobby makes a racist comment, instead of attempting to enlighten him, simply remind yourself that he has a different belief system than yours. Remember that you have already tried to educate him about race and related matters, and he does not agree with your thoughts and opinions. Attempting to make him think like you (usually in the name of enlightenment) is really an attempt to control or change him.

If you must, say something like ‘This is an area we must agree to disagree on – you are entitled to your opinions and I am entitled to mine.”

Accept him as he is. Respect your differences. Limit your interactions with him if you don’t want to be exposed to his thoughts and rhetoric. Let it go – you can’t change other people. Attempts to do so are futile and only put you in the position of judgment and controlling others.

This is really hard to grasp when the issues are important to us, like racial prejudice. It feels like condoning behavior that goes against our values. Nonetheless, others are entitled to their opinions and biases. I grew up in the South and have many relatives who do not share my ‘liberal’ views about racial equality. What a relief it was to finally stop spending my holiday visits trying to convince them that they were wrong (and I was right!) because of their beliefs, opinions and biases.

I had to come to terms with the fact that they were/are entitled to their beliefs, and that my efforts to change (enlighten) them were making me (and them) miserable. My visits were much less tense once I stopped trying to get everyone to see it my way.


Rubin, Gretchen. "8 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Relatives During the Holiday Season." The Happiness Project. Web. 15 Oct. 2013.

Beck, Martha. "Dealing with a Dysfunctional Family During the Holidays -" Web. 15 Oct. 2013.


About the Author

LuAnn Pierce, LCSW LuAnn Pierce, LCSW

I offer solution-focused counseling to people in Colorado and Wyoming from the comfort of your own home via teleconference or telephone.

LuAnn Pierce, LCSW can be found at
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