“Happy Holidays!” is, for many, an alarm bell sounding the start of the annoying-relative high season. No matter how Rockwellian your intentions are this year, Aunt Lisa will keep asking when you’re getting married, cousin Ronnie will show up late and your sister-in-law still thinks her kids’ awful antics are just the cutest. We consulted experts on how to cope with challenging kin. They all agreed: Anticipating their quirks is key. “It’s like preparing for a debate,” says Jeremy Greenberg, author of Relative Discomfort: The Family Survival Guide. “If you have a game plan ahead of time, it gives you some confidence going into the battle.” So take time to prep for some of the most frustrating family situations with these tips from the pros.
The Relative: The Complainer
Annoying Trait: Nothing is ever right, and you’ll always hear about it.
The Remedy: “Don’t drain yourself by trying to get them to look on the bright side,” says Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. “Just acknowledge that you heard what they said and then try to move on.” Kerry Patterson, co-author of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High, suggests redirecting the conversation. “Change the topic and talk about something positive. Everyone will get it and you give them a shot across the bow without being too direct.”
The Relative: The Quizmaster
Annoying Trait: This nosy Nellie asks too many personal questions.
The Remedy: Dr. Leonard Felder, author of When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People endorses calm, firm evasiveness. “Answer calmly and enthusiastically. If you aren’t rattled or negotiable on these questions, the nosy Nellie will move on.” Greenberg suggests bringing up the touchy topic yourself: “Beat the person to the punch by initiating and completing a conversation that doesn’t allow that person to control it.”
The Relative: The Helpless Dictator
Annoying Trait: Often starts sentences with “Why don’t we?…” And by “we” he means “you.”
The Remedy: “Rather than trying to change this passive-aggressive person and turn him or her into a more honest and direct communicator, simply decide ahead of time whether you are willing or not willing to help out this time,” says Felder. “If you are too busy to do more for this manipulative person, simply stand your ground gently and gracefully. No arguments, no wasting your energy on trying to change a longtime helplessness pattern with this person.”
The Relative: The Slacker Parent
Annoying Trait: Never seems to notice that Tommy is jumping on the couch. Again.
The Remedy: “Develop some ground rules beforehand about what the kids can do, and how they should behave in the house,” says Patterson. Felder advises, “Rather than judging this person, simply offer to take the kids for a walk or engage them in some fun, distracting activity.”
The Relative: The Always Tardy to the Party
Annoying Trait: Being late isn’t always fashionable.
The Remedy: “Make your expectations clear,” Patterson says. “Tell them, ‘People are coming at 7, but we are sitting down at 7:30, meaning that if you come at 7:45 the meal will be in progress.” Greenberg’s go-to is the little white lie. “You can tell them an earlier start time so that they are likely to actually show up on time.” If you don’t feel comfortable lying, Greenberg suggests a penalty. “For example, if they arrive late, maybe they have to sit next to the wheezing great aunt or the tantrum-ing child at the dinner table.”
The Relative: The Fighter
Annoying Trait: Short-fused and long on arguments.
The Remedy: “Humor is always the magic rabbit you can pull out of your hat,” Rubin says. “It is hard to make a joke when everybody’s tempers are flaring, but if you can, do it. You can deflect things with a light touch.” Patterson advises calling a time out. “You can even say it with a laugh. Say, ‘This is getting a little heated, let’s all take a breath and not talk about this now. We’re having a party, let’s focus on enjoying.'”
The Relative: The Worrier
Annoying Trait: Catastrophe lurks around every corner.
The Remedy: Patterson suggests establishing common ground with this fretful family member. “You can say, ‘I’m kind of a worrier like you, but if I work myself up I won’t be able to sleep for two days, so I’m wondering if we can get out of this rut we are in.” Felder adds, “You can lovingly say to this person, ‘I can give you several reasons why you don’t need to worry about that, but if you truly want to worry anyway, I promise not to stop you.'”