How to Avoid Holiday Family Fights

’Tis the season fights? Learn how to manage 15 classic difficult family personalities.

Photo by Greg Clarke

“Everyone’s a child at Christmas,” the saying goes. At Thanksgiving, however, everyone simply acts like one—petulant, complaining, unhelpful, boastful—as they all assume their prescribed roles. (You, of course, are perfect.) No matter how mature your relatives may be in everyday life, when thrown together in an old, familiar situation, they regress—and their “issues” take center stage. Why? Experience has taught them that this behavior succeeds in getting people to focus on them and their agendas, says Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families ($11,

While you can’t control the actions of your role-playing relatives, you can at least control your own reactions. Here, authorities on etiquette and family dynamics offer strategies for handling a tableful of problem personalities. As for you, just keep up the good work.

The “Constructive” Criticizer

Often heard saying: “When I was in your situation, I knew exactly what I had to do.”
The offense: Gives you unsolicited advice about everything from raising your kids to raising your hemline.
Your course of action: “The criticizer relies on his ability to bait you,” says Sue Fox, author of Etiquette for Dummies ($15, Don’t take the bait: Thank him, point out facts he may have overlooked, and move on. If he keeps offering barbed comments disguised as advice, Caroline Tiger, author of How to Behave ($3,, suggests cutting him off with a breezy “Don’t worry about me—I’m fine!”

The Slacker

Often heard saying: “Yup, just a sec...I’ll be riiiight in.”
The offense: Refuses to help with the cooking, cleaning, child care, or even candle-lighting.
Your course of action: “Entertain the possibility that this person doesn’t realize anyone needs help, or perhaps he’s worried that if he were given a task to complete, he’d fail,” says Tiger. Give him precise instructions, something like “Vincent, it would be a great help if you went ahead and started rinsing the dishes. Let me get you an apron.”

The Cheerleader

Often heard saying: Anything with exclamation points. “Hey, guys! Let’s bundle up and go caroling in the snow!”
The offense: Hurls herself into the holiday spirit, donning seasonal sweaters with more doodads than a junk drawer.
Your course of action: If you’re not in the mood or if her joyousness feels forced, the cheerleader can be extremely irritating, says Fox. Don’t attempt to dampen her good cheer (she likes being the center of attention), but don’t let her cow you into wearing felt antlers to the table, either. Just keep your distance.