Uncle Hank drinks too much. Your sister Jessica won’t stop talking about her love life in detail. And although Grandma Gertrude gives compliments, they are all veiled criticisms of one kind or another: “Honey, this casserole is almost as good as Jane’s. You were so thoughtful to make it. Did you use a box mix?” That’s right. Holiday time is just around the corner.

As much as you might want to, resist the urge to stab Grandma and the other relations with a kitchen knife or some other object. No matter how bad it gets, keep telling yourself it’s only a few days of torture. Soon you will ascend from the fire pits of holiday hell and get back to your regular life.

If you lose your focus and allow yourself to get sucked into others’ negative behavior, it may take you until March to fully deprogram. On the other hand, by accepting your “relative reality,” you ought to have those people out of your system no later than the 10th of January or so.

Move Number One

To successfully keep your cool, you must learn to play mental defense.

  1. Get those Norman Rockwell pictures and sappy Hollywood movies out of your mind. Those situations are not real. The people in them were being paid to look happy. How hard is that to do? You’ve probably pinned on a smile for years but with no cash compensation.
  2. Bear in mind that relatives are just that – people you are related to. That doesn’t mean that they are your friends or the kinds of people you would ever choose to be around. You may love them, but you don’t have to like them. You may even hate them, but be at the family holiday because you love someone else in attendance. Whatever the reason is that you are with your holiday crew, you are not obligated to call up feelings you don’t have.
  3. It’s a good idea, however, to be civil no matter what. The last thing you want is for your negative reaction to overshadow the initial offense. Believe it or not, that may be exactly what your nutty relative wanted in the first place.
  4. If hot-button issues usually surface, figure out a couple of ways that you might rein in your reaction ahead of time. If your divorce and blow-by-blow of everything your ex-spouse ever did is one of the holiday tapes (those conversations you know by heart) that gets played, have a couple of subject-changing activities or questions planned.
  5. Recognize that bad holidays do require a little recovery time. You’re probably not crazy. You just think you are after being locked in a house for a weekend with people that treat you as if you are still eleven, can’t stop talking about themselves, or have beliefs radically different from your own. Rather than telling innocent bystanders about your wacky relations, consider journaling instead. Why? Because if it’s really bad, most people just won’t get it and will say something naive and irritating such as, “oh it can’t be that bad” or “you’re exaggerating.” You’re not. They just don’t know your family, nor do they need to. After all, if you did introduce them to Grandma, you don’t honestly think she would have the decency to not use her usual tactics, do you?

Move Number Two

After you have mentally prepared yourself for the worst, you must learn to play strategic physical defense.

  1. Downtime is the smell of opportunity to difficult relatives. Your holidays will run more smoothly if there are plenty of activities to fill gaps. Don’t rely on television to solve this problem. Even with 112 channels, you won’t be able to find enough entertainment to last 24 hours. Plan, plan, plan. You don’t have to use every activity you’ve planned, but you need to have some in reserve. If the main event is at your house, look for opportunities to get people involved. If those activities can be outside for a few hours, even better.  If you are going to someone else’s house, offer to bring a few activities. Depending on your family’s interests, basketball, board games, charades, or even something such as decorating cookies may be a good choice.
  2. Plan an entry and exit time as well as a date for yourself if you are going to someone else’s house. Do the same if a group is coming to yours. For example, “Bob and I would like you to come for Thanksgiving. If you could arrive between 11:00 and noon on Thursday that would give us time to get everything ready for you. We’ve also planned a big breakfast for Friday before everyone leaves. He and I have been invited to a (fill in the blank) on Friday afternoon and we need to be out of the house no later than 11:30. Will that work for you?” Do not leave entry and exit dates or times up to chance with people who tend to overstay their welcome. You will be sorry.

Move Number Three

The third and final holiday move is attempting to neutralize the other side. Shifting focus to others might help you to defuse some of the bad behaviors your relatives typically exhibit.

  1. Although this may seem counterintuitive, think about inviting more people to your holiday. When there are fifty people in attendance, it is much more difficult for a diva to be a diva. There are simply too many people’s interest to hold.
  2. Focus on the kids. Babies and little kids don’t fully understand weird family dynamics. Most of the time, discussions about babies are usually fairly benign. But of course, if kid chat is where your family usually falls apart, don’t go that way.
  3. Focus on the less fortunate. If, for example, at Thanksgiving everyone brings a gift for Toys for Tots or some other charity group, part of your discussion will naturally revolve around that.

Family celebrations aren’t always happy, but they are part of our cultural calendar. The more you can mentally and physically minimize their impact, the less stressed and strung out you will be. Now go forth armed and ready. Happy holidays!