Dealing With Difficult In-Laws During The Holidays

The holidays are a time for joyfully sharing meals and gifts with loved ones, right? Right. But what if those loved ones come with family members who are not so lovable?

I’m one of the lucky ones, my mother-in-law is great. She’s like another mom to me, and we’ve never had any trouble getting along in 25 years. It’s my family of origin that tends to have the holiday dramas, so I have quite a bit of experience with dealing with difficult folks during the holidays.

Here are some things to remember about keeping the joy -- and peace -- during family holidays.

Family drama stems from insecurity and control

Think back on the big family-gathering blow-ups you've experienced. Was the person who started the drama insecure and trying to gain the upper hand in the relationshi?  Often, that looks like your mother-in-law trying to make her son choose her over you. Or a father-in-law pitting grown children against each other. 


Dr.Leonard Felder, Ph.D suggests making this promise with yourself: “I will not bite the bait when someone who is insecure about their own worth tries to comment on my worth.” 


Know in advance that if this is your mother-in-law, for example, she’ll try to attack you about something she’s good at so she can feel better about herself. You can create a preventative strategy by asking her in advance for her help. If she’s a better cook (or thinks she is), ask for her advice in planning or prepping for the meal. I know it might not seem completely authentic, but you do catch more bees with honey than with vinegar. 


For that manipulative father-in-law, try engaging him in a card game or talking about a neutral subject, asking him more about his childhood holidays or hobbies, if only to diffuse and deflect drama.


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Alcohol plays a big part in the drama

“Know your audience," advises Dr. Sheri Meyers.


Chances are if your Uncle Bill gets drunk at every gathering, he probably will again. Have a plan in place for how you will handle it together. Prepare early before the gathering to work as a  tag team and cover each other's back. Develop a secret signal (a hand sign or random word) that when activated, means "I need help here, Step in NOW please.” 


Deal with it later

It’s also important to remember that over-indulging in alcohol can give a vindictive in-law an excuse to unload their poison on an unsuspecting victim, and then claim they didn’t mean it afterward. This is, of course, cowardly. Alcohol gave the mean-spirited person an excuse to say what they really feel without having to take full responsibility for their words.


If this is a dynamic that plays out in your family, Dr. Sheri has this advice: “Know your buttons and practice taking a deep breath and responding non-defensively. A good way to sidetrack negativity and criticism is to imagine you are wrapped in teflon where nothing sticks and everything just slides off you. If an in-law makes a disparaging remark about you, your partner, or a member of your family,  rather than attack back, simply smile and reply with a neutral comment, such as, "Hmmm?" as you imagine it sliding off you. 


Let it go. Later, once the holidays are over you can deal with it  privately and more directly.


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Pick your battles 

It’s exhausting and unnecessary to fight every single potential battle that appears in front of you. Trust me, I tried that for a long time and it’s really not worth it.


Ask yourself how important it really is to win this particular battle of wills, and be honest. Dr. Sheri suggests, “Lead by exampleModel the behavior you want from others. Be respectful, grown-up, kind and polite. Be the gracious hostess and treat everyone as honored guests. Fill the room with warmth, praise, and approval. Once you have your back-up plan in place, relax and anticipate goodness. What we focus on grows: focus on having a great gathering.”


Call a time-out

When you find yourself in the midst of a heated discussion or brewing battle, Dr. Leonard Felder gives you permission to call a time out like a quarterback on the field. You can  remind everyone that you’re gathering to celebrate, not denigrate. He suggests you say, “Let’s stop with the topics that get us off track and instead, take a moment to appreciate how hard everyone has worked to be here.”


Have an exit strategy

When all else fails, have a back up plan. Dr. Leonard recommends that if you can’t find peace during a family gathering, you can take a private time out. Go for a walk, find a quiet room, or phone a friend who can help you remember how amazing you are, even if your in-laws don’t choose to see your awesomeness.



What are your tips for dealing with difficult in-laws?


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