How to handle your difficult relations

Difficult relations. They’re one of the challenges of the season, and most of us have them. An aunt who talks non stop. A brother who drinks too much. Nephews or nieces who run amok; someone who’s simply mean. And that’s before you add your workplace challenges! Many people can suck the ‘happy’ out of your Christmas. And though you’ll meet them all year round, this season they’re especially hard to handle.

What can you do? Well, that’s an excellent question, mostly because it’s the start of you not passively accepting a bad situation. Even if you can’t avoid difficult relations completely, you can find ways to limit their effect on you and yours. So, let’s leave passive victim-hood behind and become positive problem solvers! Rather than tackle the nearly infinite types of difficult relations out there, here’s the broad guidelines that’ll steer you through your challenge:


Why wait til you get to your event to start finding solutions? Ask yourself what can be done in advance. If you’re the host, this is especially easy as the host sets the tone for what happens. Is everyone at war over whether to put your parents into a nursing home? Send round a carefully worded text requesting everyone leave that topic alone for the day so you can all celebrate happily. Do you know your kids will have difficulty with some of their cousins? Casually prepare them to cope better now, with a few conversations about what to do if (when) Freddy does X or Katy does Y. Find a way to tell Freddy’s mum that, you’re sure she’ll understand, if things are broken this year, she’ll be helping pay to right the wrongs done. (She may parent as she likes, but you don’t have to bear the cost!). Even if you’re not the host there are things you can do to cut trouble off at the pass. What are they? Note them somewhere in your phone.


Be pro-active on the day of your gathering. If you know Uncle Larry’s going to monopolise all conversation, sit him right down one end of the table (though not at the head or foot!). If people will have little positive to say to each other, make your own set of upbeat table conversation starters. Put them into the Christmas crackers and give everybody one minute (use an egg timer or your phone) to speak to their question. Sample questions are below. If you’re always left with the clean up, announce brightly that it’s the guys/young ones turn this year, as soon as the meal’s finished. Then go and sit yourself somewhere comfy, preferably with another, and resolutely leave the kitchen alone. Send the kids outside if there’s going to be boisterous behaviour – or get everyone playing the cricket/bocce game you just ‘happen’ to have in the car. Even Tom, who’s over-eating or drinking! Use group pressure to help you achieve this.

Sanity saving

If you know the issues will involve yourself personally, again be pro-active. Perhaps you’re expecting it to be hard to have anything interesting to say to most of your clan. Adopt the conversation starters below for your own use or sit in on the edge of someone else’s chatting. If the adults will give you the cold shoulder, go find the kids or your nonna. Avoid turning the telly on or playing with your phone. Although it may distract you, it’ll only add to the sense of separation between you and the others. Find your partner or someone who likes you and hang out with them instead. And, if all else fails, set yourself a time limit and then leave.

Time outs

These are things you can sneakily do when you need some mental or emotional space from your difficult relations. No one will be the wiser! Pat the cat. Play with the kids. Throw the ball to the dog. Hug your spouse or someone’s baby. Get something organised. Go to the bathroom and count to 200 (100’s barely enough.) Do some deep breathing, and in private remind yourself of the eating, drinking or relating choices you made for the day. Re-read the notes you made before you got here (on your phone!!) as encouragement. Ask yourself if there’s any good reason to deviate from them, pep yourself up and – when you’re ready – go forth and face the world again. As an alternative, list out loud five good things about your life. Doing several of these across the day’s to be expected; good on you for taking control.


I’ve focused on the lighter end of difficult relation challenges – I know there can be far worse. If you realistically expect that you or someone you’re responsible for (eg your children) may be harmed at such a gathering, consider not going. This is supposed to be the season of goodwill, after all, and your safety matters. Suggest an alternative get-together, in public or where you can control things and so everyone can be safe. Find a friend to hang out with on the day instead if you choose not to go.

The second rider is to do a self-check on your interpretation of difficult relations before you go too far. The world’s full of flawed human beings – are the people you’ve labelled difficult simply one of those? After all, you’ve got your own quirks which others have to deal with too… The best and the worst thing about family is it’s a random group of individuals who (once grown) choose to stick together. Can you show some humour or grace?

Positive conversation starters

Here’s a few novel questions to start people talking yet keep things looking up: So, what’s the funniest thing you’ve done all year? What’s your best memory from 2017? What’s been your favourite gift so far? Why? Who’s one person you’ve appreciated this year? What are you proudest of this year? Tell us something you’re looking forward to next year. Tell us a favourite other Christmas memory.

With all these options under your belt, I trust you feel more in control of your impending Christmas challenge. Go to it, stay positive, and have some fun applying a few of my hints!