Everyone’s family is different. Some families get along well and enjoy spending quality time together, especially during the holiday season. Others can barely stand in the same room together. Some even force themselves to act happy and put together for the sake of younger members or friends. 

Whatever your family situation is, the holiday season can be a triggering time for those who are separated from or have complicated relationships with their family. 

What if your family pressures you to drink, knowing you are sober? What if your family makes jokes about your sexuality or supports politics you are not in support of? You might be afraid to say or do anything for fear of starting trouble or ruining the holidays. Here are some guidelines for handling some tough situations that might arise between you and your family during the holidays.

The situation: You decide not to attend your family holiday gatherings.

First, identify if there is a family member you feel most comfortable talking to. If not, that’s okay. It would be best to tell someone who will be going to your family gathering that you can’t attend this year but, if you don’t want to, you’re under no obligation to explain yourself. You are not obligated to go home for the holidays (I repeat: YOU ARE NOT OBLIGATED) to do anything for anyone just to make them feel better. It’s okay to make this decision for yourself, especially if it means protecting yourself from toxic or potentially harmful situations.

If you feel the need to do so, you should block your toxic family members from contacting you because they will likely send hurtful messages that you don’t even need to see or be aware of. 

You could send a simple message, either to the person you trust or to everyone, via email or text, and say something along the lines of: “I have decided not to come home for the holidays this season because I do not think it would be good for my mental health. I am fine; you do not need to worry about me. I am growing and working on myself and think being at home would not be helpful for me during this time. Please respect my decision and boundaries. I will reach out to you if I want to.”

The situation: Your family tries to get you to have a drink.

Prior to the holiday season, consider talking about these concerns with your most trusted family member. Whether it’s your parents or a sibling or someone else, you should confide in a person that you are worried about other members of the family peer pressuring you to drink. You could either ask them to talk to those family members and mention your worries, or, if you feel up to it, you could contact them ahead of time and remind them that you are sober. 

When you are at home and find yourself being asked to “just have a sip,” or “just have one drink,” decline and remind the person doing so that you are sober and do not drink. If they continually try to get you to drink or poke fun at you for being sober, take a deep breath, decline again, and walk away. 

Alternatively, consider always having your non-alcoholic drink of choice on you. That way, people might not even notice that you are not drinking and it gives less of an opportunity for anyone to try anything. 

If things get uncomfortable, remove yourself from the situation. It might not always be easy to walk away but engaging with intoxicated people who clearly do not respect you will only lead to more trouble and pain for you. It’s not your duty to teach these people respect.

The situation: A family member starts talking about politics.

You might not always see eye to eye with some of your family members regarding politics. This can make family gatherings extremely difficult to attend, especially if there is someone in your family who you know is going to bring up controversial topics.

As difficult as it may be, do your best to remain calm and avoid launching into a debate. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way and ultimately found that the holidays just aren’t the time to be holding debates, especially when members of your family feel very strongly and passionately about their beliefs. You cannot change them and feeding into their challenges and comments is exactly what they want you to do.

Instead, try looking them in the eye and saying something along the lines of, “I appreciate you for telling me your opinion and I respectfully disagree with what you said. But I do not think right now is the time or place to be having this discussion. Maybe we can talk about this at another time.”

The situation: A family member gets too drunk.

It can be difficult to be around family members who have a drinking problem, especially when sober. If the festivities are at your house, you set your rules and remind your family about what you will tolerate and how you will handle anyone breaking said rules. 

If you are attending events at another member of your family’s, remember that you do not have to tolerate both the drunken party’s behavior or those who are enabling them. You don’t need to do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. It is not your responsibility to bear, even if it feels hard to walk away or do nothing. Do what feels comfortable in the moment. 

If you’re not sure, consider the following approaches:

  • Decline drinking with them and do not get them a drink if they ask for one.
  • Notify another member of your family/someone also present that you believe the person is intoxicated and needs help, or at least to be cut off.
  • Avoid confrontations with the drunk relative.
  • If you feel inclined, tell the person how their behavior makes you feel when you’re both sober.

The situation: Your family keeps prying you about your love life or career plans.

One of the worst parts about family gatherings is all the catching up and conversations from older members that can’t seem to understand the choices you’ve made in your life. Whether your family is not supportive of your career path or continually asks about your relationship status, it can be rather annoying to be around family who don’t know when to stop prying.

Before you attend your family holiday gatherings, take a moment to write down the questions you know they are going to ask you. Consider writing out (or practicing with a therapist or friend) how you want to respond to those questions. This way, you can be prepared to answer so that you do not stumble your way through a conversation that opens the door to more questions. You can be as vague as you want, or simply respond with “yes” and “no” answers

For example, if your parents ask you about work and want to know if you’ve received a promotion yet or made a decision about another job offer, say something along the lines of, “Let’s not talk about this right now, I’ll let you know when I can.” 

At the end of the day, you should remember that you do not owe an explanation, especially about your life decisions, to anyone. You also don’t owe anyone staying in a toxic situation — such as if someone is trying to get you to “have just one drink” or arguing about politics over a plate of cookies. 

The truth is that families are sometimes difficult. If yours causes you pain and suffering, you have every right to only show up for what you are mentally prepared for when it comes to the holiday season. After all, your sobriety is worth a lot more than having to deal with difficult family during the holidays — and there’s nothing wrong with taking a break if and when you need it.