COMMENTARY: Surviving Critical Relatives at Family Gatherings

I realize that not everyone lives in a Norman Rockwell world where family gatherings are sources of warmth and good memories. For some, the prospect of holiday get-togethers generates dread and anxiety; they are something to endure, not enjoy.

One reason is that family members can be tactless and downright cruel when expressing their opinions about perceived foibles, flaws and failures of their relatives, especially in-laws. Often comments are so laden with negative judgment that they could make the Grinch wince.Whether motivated by well-intentioned, but misdirected, love and concern, or by malice, insensitive or unkind words are like spears to the heart.

Maybe it’s a controlling or critical parent publicizing disappointment or disapproval about your job, lifestyle or failure to give them grandchildren. Or it might be a sister who delights in pointing out how old, tired or overweight you look. Or an uncle who loudly proclaims how much better his children are doing. It may seem that everywhere you turn there are self-righteous relatives who feel it’s their right and duty to criticize you.

The sad truth is that family members are often willing to say things to their relatives that they would never say to others. For some reason, people who are generally kind and tactful, even charming, among friends and business associates become rude and inconsiderate oafs in family gatherings.

But it’s also true people who are strong and confident in other settings feel fragile and vulnerable when surrounded by family members uninhibited by the normal rules of civil discourse.

If you see yourself as a perennial victim, here are a few strategies to help you cope:

Treat the evening as a game testing your strength of character. You win if you refuse to get upset.

Don’t take anything seriously. Whenever you can, assume the offender had good intentions but bad judgment and allow for the possibility that you misinterpreted the remark. If this doesn’t work because you’re sure the person is spiteful, mean or irredeemably stupid, just treat them as if they were mentally ill and unable to control themselves.

Remember, you can’t control what others say and do but you can control how you react.

But I can’t assume everyone out there is a victim. There’s a good chance some of you are spear throwers. Could you be the hyper–critical parent, insensitive sibling, boastful aunt or tactless uncle?  Could something you think is good-natured kidding or clever wit be received as a gratuitous put-down?

Just in case, at your next gathering, be self-consciously tactful; opt for a compliment rather than a criticism; try to make everyone feel better, not worse. Make it your mission to make it a happy holiday for everyone.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

In The Art of Navigating Family at the Holidays, Azriel ReShel makes a similar point and offers useful advice in the full article.

How is it that family gatherings tend to bring out the worst in people? With all the longing to be together, deep desires for meaningful and quality time, and the joy of being with family, somehow things don’t quite go as we hope, or more likely go totally against our plans. The enormous expectations, crazy preparations, excessive pressure, and idea of the perfect Christmas can turn any stable adult into a reckless, exploding Christmas Cracker. It’s the time where the inner child runs riot. Everyone tries to give their own children what they didn’t get, racing around trying to prove they are an adequate parent and haven’t completely screwed up their young tribe. But, quite honestly the whole shebang, while filled with good cheer and never-ending optimism, is often a recipe for disaster. see full article at

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