Six Tips for Dealing with Your Difficult Family Members Over the Holidays

HOLIGAYS 2017 / Autostraddle

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The holidays are officially around the corner, which for many means navigating frustrating, uncomfortable, and often hurtful interactions with ignorant family members. Spending time with family as a queer person with multiple marginalized identities has the potential to be stressful at any point in time, but the holidays have a special magic of multiplying familial conflicts tenfold. Factoring in the current political climate – although the recent elections were a much-needed ray of hope – it seems just about everyone is headed home anticipating major conflicts but not super confident about how to navigate them. I wanted to take some of the guesswork out of how to handle these interactions in a healthy and helpful way, so I’m sharing these tips and techniques that have been useful to me in the face of conflict for those of you who’ll need to advocate for yourselves in difficult conversations and fight the good fight this holiday season. We can do this. Hopefully one day we won’t have to.

Here’s some things you can do to make your time with family a little less problematic this year.

Speak Up

Lately we’ve been seeing the realtime consequences of what happens when the standard policy is to remain silent and let people with problematic views and behaviors slide. They get stronger and bolder. Silence validates oppressors and in their minds gives them permission to carry on. If no one ever tells the cousin that gets handsy after their fifth beer that what they’re doing is inappropriate and violates boundaries, they won’t just figure it out. They’ll assault someone. We cannot afford to let the desire to avoid momentary conflict and discomfort take precedence over holding others accountable any longer. However, this doesn’t mean that calling your family members racist sexist idiots is the way to go, that will start a long and unproductive fight. A call out can be as simple as saying “what you are doing/saying is not okay.” Sometimes the exchange will stop there and that’s fine; not everything needs to be pushed. Sometimes people will ask questions and you can have an educational conversation, which is awesome. Inevitably there will be times that the reactions are demeaning or explosive, and that’s where step 2 comes in.

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Stay Calm

Nothing ensures that a conversation is headed for failure like the people involved getting heated. Yelling, insults, and/or attacks immediately shut down effective communication and trigger defensiveness. The best way to advocate for yourself, be heard, and keep the conversation constructive is to stay calm. This is often easier said than done, so if you feel yourself hitting your boiling point, try to have the awareness to express that and ask to table the conversation until a later time. If you are feeling calm and the person you’re engaging with is becoming aggressive toward you, it is completely acceptable to stop the conversation before they say something hurtful to you. You can say something like “I don’t think this conversation is constructive any longer and think it’s best if we take a break.” If for any reason the person does not respect your request or begins to yell over you, physically removing yourself from the conversation is the best option.

Make It About Yourself

If you’ve called someone out on their behavior, everyone is calm and seems open to discussion, and you want to capitalize on this chance to have an impact, turn the conversation toward yourself. Now is the time to clearly and concisely explain to this person what they did, how or why it hurt you, and what you would appreciate them doing in the future. You should be direct, firm, and respectful and use “I” statements. For example. instead of saying “you always act like I’m lazy and purposely choosing not to be helpful when you know I can’t!” Try “I feel hurt and misunderstood when it frustrates you that I’m depressed and can’t be helpful at every moment. It would help me to know what you’d like me to do ahead of time so I can prepare.” Focusing on your feelings and experience of the situation rather than pointing out what others did wrong and blaming will generally lead them to be much more receptive to hearing things they’ve done wrong and allow for a mutually beneficial conversation.  

Use The Buddy System

Hopefully you have at least one likeminded family member that also spends the holidays hoping their turkey-induced naps will last four hours. Reach out to anyone that you know is an ally before you head home and make an agreement to have each other’s backs. If you can see they’re bothered by someone but don’t have the energy or ability to say something, help them out and vice versa. Your family might be stubborn and ignore one person trying to pull them toward the light of wokeness, but it’s much harder to ignore two or three or more people expressing that continuing to support this administration is perpetuating racism, homophobia, ableism and sexism among way too many other things. The same logic applies if it’s really just one problematic person and not the whole family. If everyone tells them respectfully but consistently that what they are doing is hurtful, it’s more likely to bring about some positive change.

Have Realistic Expectations

Autostraddle wasn’t built in a day, and neither were your family’s beliefs, culture, and behaviors. Their thought patterns are habits that have had a lifetime of accumulation, so thinking you’re going to show up for the holidays and completely change someone’s views over the course of a week is unrealistic. You’ll be disappointed and waste a lot of good energy because you can’t force anyone to change. What you can do is set expectations for yourself. If what you want is to be respected, set the self expectation that you will spend the holiday communicating how you want to be treated and what you are not willing to tolerate. This may not get your mother to stop thinking you’re less attractive as a butch or assuming you’re unhealthy because you’re fat, but it might cause her to think twice before saying “you look SO much better with long hair” or “do you really need that piece of pie?” You have the right to be respected and to advocate for yourself regardless of your family’s views. It may not happen as quickly as you’d like, but staying firm and being clear on your boundaries is one of the best ways to bring about change.

Above All, Be Safe

None of these tips are helpful if you are in a situation that is life threatening or otherwise unsafe. If at any point for any reason you feel your mental and/or physical health are in jeopardy, get out of that situation as quickly as possible. Nothing is more important than your safety and well-being. 

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Reneice Charles is a just another queer, liberal, woman of color using the Internet to escape from reality and failing miserably. She received her MSW from New York University and is an Entrepreneur and Vocalist living in Los Angeles. She spends her spare time wishing she didn't have to use her spare time convincing people that everyone deserves the same basic human rights.

Reneice has written 104 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. Solid advice. Thank you. I’ve spent some time thinking since last November, and I really feel like refusing to address problematic things with our family members is one factor that led to 45 being elected. It also exacerbates our inability to actually have conversation about important topics like this as a nation. If we can’t practice these skills with family, where can we practice them?

    I especially like the point you make where silence is taken as validation by certain folks.

    Not that you should do any of this if you are in danger, as you say. But if it’s just sanity, I’ve always personally felt better if I’ve spoken up, even if it’s imperfect (or at least I’m trying to be ok with imperfection!)

  2. This is great! One thing I’ve always struggled with is the pre-meal prayer. My sister’s husband insists on a lengthy prayer before every meal (he is a pastor) and I am ardently anti-Christianity. Every time I try to opt out of the prayer (usually by hiding in the kitchen) I get told I am being disrespectful or rude. How can I get my family to respect my atheism? Alternatively, I’d love ideas for Thanksgiving prayers that are not White Jesus centered and/or acknowledge the indigenous people we stole this land from.

    • That’s a tricky one – to some people, religion is an important part of their identity, and if we’re asking for our identities to be respected & acknowledged it seems important to do the same for others. That doesn’t mean their religion gets a free pass on all the harm it causes in the world, but it’s better to challenge those specific harms than to dismiss the entire faith (the best analogy I can think of is challenging toxic masculinity while respecting the identity of trans men), & hope that people can refocus on the good in their faith (you can absolutely read Jesus as a social justice advocate & act in accordance with that!)

      For the specific situation, I’d say seek a compromise that you both find acceptable. Would saying something along the lines of “I acknowledge that your religion is important to you, please acknowledge that I don’t share it” work with your family? Explicitly agreeing that they can have their prayer but that you can’t be forced to join in? How would you & they feel about you being present in the room during the prayer, but sitting silently with your own thoughts rather than participating? If you made a “prayer request” for them to uphold indigenous peoples in the pre-meal prayer, would that be respected?

  3. My aunt’s husband is a serious piece of work (blatantly racist, sexist, hot-headed jerk), and we always sort of just awkwardly sat through his hateful tirades. That is, until one year, he started picking on my then-teenaged cousin, in an insulting racist way, and my mom had enough. She told him he couldn’t talk to my cousin like that at her house, and so the cowardly blow-hard left. Holidays have never been better, and my mom is a BAMF.

  4. I am glad this article exists, thank you Reneice for writing it.

    If possible, I’d love to see a companion piece on dealing with *not* being allowed to see family over the holidays. I’m facing the second Christmas in a row being explicitly not-welcome at the family gathering because my girlfriend makes my parents “uncomfortable” – how do I deal with feeling excluded, how do I take care of myself & my partner, how do I enact plans to see the not-shit members of my family (including teenage brothers who still live with my parents & don’t have independent transport), and how do we establish new holiday traditions?

    • I’ve been working on this a myself. This year feels like it might be the most successful yet. We started by slowly creating our own traditions.

      The first one that stuck was preparing a new and different side dish every year that we chose as a family and make together (I handle all the other cooking cuz I love cooking) this is a tradition we want to do with our kids one day.

      Then for my lady and myself we get a specific type of scotch that we only get for turkey day.

      For my lady we got those fancy chocolates.

      For me I get hot coco with little marshmallows set a fire, and sit and listen to some songs I love.
      (My playlist is Kick In The Head, Every Time We Touch, Raise Your Glass, Geronimo and I want to get Better.) I drink some scotch, allow myself to feel sad till I’m done listening then I move on.

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