With the hassle of traveling, gift buying, and navigating in-laws (not to mention the tyranny of that dang Elf on the Shelf), the Polar Express of family harmony is heading off the rails. Want more peace on earth—or in your mom's living room? Take this advice on navigating seven sticky situations.

By Ingela Ratledge
Updated November 12, 2015
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Man carving turkey at family dinner
Credit: Tom Stewart/Getty Images

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Illustration: family holiday chaos
Credit: Brian Rea

1 Your Siblings Let Their Kids Run Wild (Late Nights, Coookieeees!). You Don't Want to Be a Grinch, But Your Kids Do Better Sticking With Their Routines—and Bedtime.

"This is hard, because it's such a triumph to figure out what magical routines work best for your kid in the first place," says Hillary Frank, the creator and host of the parenting podcast The Longest Shortest Time. "But there are a few times a year when it's worth disrupting that for the chance to have a memorable experience with family or friends." To gauge just how far to push the envelope (they want to plow through how many movie versions of A Christmas Carol tonight?), do periodic check-ins, says Frank. Is your kid having enough fun to justify tomorrow's payback? Then let the good times roll. (And be sure to check your motivation: Don't be a killjoy just because you want to swill Champagne with the grown-ups in peace.) If she's too tired to even enjoy the late-night TV, call bedtime. "You know what's best for your kids," says Deborah Gilboa, a family physician and the author of Get the Behavior You Want…Without Being the Parent You Hate! Don't put them behind the eight ball because you're unwilling to say that you have different rules or simply want to avoid a debate, she says.

2 Your Sister (and, Um, Santa) Go Overboard on Presents. Your Philosophy Is "Less Is More." You Don't Want to Disappoint Your Kids, But You Don't Want to Compromise Your Values, Either.

"Pitch a different approach, like a three-gifts-per-kid limit during communal present-opening," says Susan Raines, Ph.D., a professor of conflict management at Kennesaw State University, in Georgia. If your sister balks at that idea, ask that the bulk of the gifts come from actual people, not Santa. It won't nix the awkwardness, but at least your children won't be worrying that they somehow landed on the naughty list. The next step is to create a diversion while the cousins are working through an Everest-size mountain of gifts from Mom and Dad. Tell your crew that you'll take them sledding as soon as they've finished unwrapping. Or make sure that the last gift they open is the most-wanted video game or a remote-control car that will receive rapt attention for hours. What if it's already too late, and you've found yourself in the midst of an American Girl ambush? Find a reason to change rooms (Let's eat the gumdrops off the gingerbread house!) and talk. "Listen to them vent about what they saw. Ask how they felt watching their cousins open their gifts and opening their own," says Frank. "There are no right answers." This talk can introduce the important idea that there will always be someone who has more than they do.

3 You Can't Properly Argue With Your Husband When There Are 18 People in the House!

Mistletoe not doing the trick, huh? You're not alone. "The madness of the holidays makes everyday irritations with your spouse even harder to deal with," says Winifred M. Reilly, a marriage and family therapist in Berkeley, California. Tensions are probably running higher than usual, so try to let go of the little things, like where he tossed his socks. For the beefs that need to be dealt with, try what Reilly calls speed-fighting. "It's good when you're short on time and privacy," she says. "Give yourself five minutes—2½ for each of you—to discuss what's upsetting. No cross-talk allowed— just listen to the other without interruption or rebuttal." Then go back to whatever was happening. You missed only one hand of Uno, and you can each let the other's thoughts percolate a bit. If you need to revisit the issue later, you can, but the speed round releases the pressure, reducing the possibility of a public blow-up.

4 You Want to Stay Put This Year and Not Schlep Your Family Across the Country. Your Parents Will Be Crushed.

"There are no magic words that will keep you from upsetting them," says Terence Patterson, a family psychologist in San Francisco. Even if you explain why you want to start your own traditions or if the thought of a plane ride with three kids is giving you hives, "you're still saying no," says Frank. "I don't think the actual reason or how honest you are about it really matters." So this conversation is about softening the blow. (Doubly so if you've decided to skip the rigmarole in favor of the Bahamas.) Deliver the news with the sandwich technique, says Judith Orloff, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA and the author of Emotional Freedom: "Something positive on either end, with the difficult part in the middle," she says. The key is to finish on an optimistic note that sets up an alternative, like "We're planning a trip over President's Day weekend, when it's not so chaotic and we can have you all to ourselves." And if the news still goes over like a lead balloon? Give it time. "Many people do come around eventually," says Patterson. Also, learning to set boundaries or say no to your parents—even when it feels impossible—is part of being an adult, says Orloff. "Too often we keep doing things to be people pleasers," she says, "and although I understand the tendency to do that with our parents, it can be toxic."

5 Your College-Age Daughter Only Wants to See Her Friends While She's Home. Sob.

If you're revving up for mother-daughter strolls and marathon talks and Abby is halfway to the Cheesecake Factory to reunite with her high school buds, don't be shocked. It feels personal, but it couldn't be more normal and natural—she's used to making her own schedule. To stave off disappointment (yours) and resentment (hers), discuss expectations. "It's not realistic to have her do everything she did when she was nine. What you want is time with her, so plan that," says Patterson. Let her know which family functions are non-negotiable—no, it can't be all of them—and let her bring a friend if possible. To book one-on-one time? Think in terms of her wheelhouse (say, shopping for a New Year's Eve outfit), not yours (forget that hike).

6 Your In-Laws Come For a Week Every Year, But It's Too Much for You. How Do You Shave It Down to Four Days?

Well, you can't be 100 percent honest, unfortunately. (I can stand your passive aggressiveness for only so long!) But you can give some version of the truth, says Gilboa, such as "We're so excited you're coming to visit. Could you pick the best four days in there? We've promised ourselves some downtime with the kids during the break." Bonnie Harris, the director of ConnectiveParenting.com and the author of When Your Kids Push Your Buttons, offers this tack: "With the term paper/swim meet/night terrors we've been dealing with, we want to keep things fairly regular. We'd love to have you stay for a few days, and then we can book a room for you nearby." Be brief—the more colorful your story, the less valid it sounds. "People overexplain, and that makes it worse," says Patterson.

7 You Aren't As Religious As Your Family and Want to Opt Out of Certain Traditions.

Pick your battles, says Patterson. Why not coast quietly through a premeal prayer rather than ruffling cousin Jean's feathers with a Nietzsche quote? "You can be respectful without having to say anything," says Orloff. It gets trickier when a deeper investment is required—a lengthy church service or allowing your newborn to play baby Jesus in the town nativity. "If you can participate to make someone else happy, do. We make sacrifices for people we love," says Orloff. "If you're going to feel tortured, then don't do it." But try to schedule another activity that starts earlier, so you're out of the house, not settling in with Netflix as the churchgoers file out to midnight Mass.