How to Deal with Difficult Family Members over the Holidays

Many families have holiday traditions that include opening stockings, watching Christmas movies, or going to see the lights. Other families enjoy igniting political debates, screaming over family history, or arguing about religious beliefs. Whether your family falls into the former or latter category—or somewhere in between—here are 7 ways to deal with difficult family members over the holidays.

1. DO pray for wisdom.

Dealing with difficult family members can be complicated, and adding a healthy dose of holiday stress and anxiety can only make things worse. First, pray about whether or not you should even attend a family function that you suspect will end poorly. Second, if the answer is yes, pray for wisdom to know when to engage and when to refrain. James 1:5 promises, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

2. DON’T expect disaster.

While it’s a good idea to set reasonable expectations—especially where a history is involved—sometimes we can be so sure of an outcome that we actually contribute to it. Plan for a successful event. Pray for a successful event. Expect a successful event. Ecclesiastes 7:9 warns, “Do not be eager in your heart to be angry.”

3. DO choose your battles.

It’s sad that a day meant to honor Christ can become a battle ground, but difficult family members often know exactly which buttons to push to take a conversation from civil to surly. Here’s the thing, just because a family member “goes there” on a specific topic or issue doesn’t mean you must “go there,” too. In each conversation you can choose whether or not to engage. You don’t have to accept every opportunity you are given to do battle with difficult people. Keep in mind Colossians 4:6—”Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”

4. DON’T match their intensity.

Intense people grow more intense when others match their intensity. So if you want to keep things “merry and bright,” refuse to go toe to toe. If you notice that you are feeling or growing more passionate during a conversation or situation, politely excuse yourself to step outside or decompress behind closed doors. Whatever your strategy, plan how you’ll respond to any potential stressful situation and then handle it immediately when things become intense. Remember the words of James 1:19—”Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

5. DO establish boundaries.

Loving difficult people isn’t the same as letting them consistently do toxic things. Sometimes love requires we draw a line where certain behaviors are concerned and refuse to cross it. We must do so lovingly and with careful counsel and for the good of everyone involved, recognizing that “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh words stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).

6. DON’T put too much pressure on yourself.

Though the Christmas season can bring painful emotions and difficult memories to the surface, the reality is that December 25 is “just another day.” You can’t change people’s hearts (or even their political or religious opinions!) Do the best you can with what you have and trust God to do the rest. Remember, God is able to do “exceedingly abundantly more than we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).

7. DO keep the end goal in mind.

Especially if you have family members who do not know or love Christ, the end goal ought to be hope for their spiritual well-being. And as hard as it may be to pray for good things to happen to difficult people, this should be the desire of every child of God. After all, God created and died for each difficult person in the world. According to Paul, in order to be marked as a Christian, you should “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12).

The good news? God knows and cares about your family. The same things you struggle with this holiday season are the things Christ came to earth to overcome.

Bottom line: The holidays—and specifically time spent with family—often create unique opportunities for us to love difficult people the way God loves us, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).

Those could end up being the greatest gifts we give our loved ones this year.

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