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Dealing with Overbearing Family Members at Holiday Gatherings

“Have you gained weight? “Are you still single?” “You look tired.” “When do you have children?

Overtly personal comments and questions from overbearing family members have unfortunately become a tradition in some homes over the holidays, often creating awkward and tense moments during what should be a joyous occasion.

However, according to emotional intelligence expert Carolyn Stern, there are ways to respond to negative comments from family members without breaking the holiday spirit.

“Family is definitely going to tend to comment on your appearance, for example, and while that may seem harmless and well-intentioned, it can be really triggering and upsetting,” Stern told CTVNews.ca in a Thursday phone interview.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and manage one’s own emotions and to recognize them in others. Stern, author of The Emotionally Strong Leader: An Inside-Out Journey to Transformational Leadership, says emotional intelligence is key to helping navigate tricky or tense situations.

“All emotions give us a gift if we pay attention to them, the problem is that we haven’t really had an emotional education,” she said.


Before heading to that family celebration, Stern says it’s important to prepare mentally. Although you can’t control what people say, you can control how you react so you don’t ruin the evening.

“Assume history is going to repeat itself, you know your family dynamics, so don’t let that person trigger you because often what people say has more to do with them than it does with you,” Stern said. .

But if a family member brings up a sensitive topic, it’s important to register their emotions before responding to avoid further conflict.

Emotions are neutral and temporary, Stern says, which is why it’s important to recognize the strong emotions that are triggered by a certain topic. Understand that these emotions are valid but should not be driven by someone else trying to elicit a reaction.

“Someone at the table is going to say something that frustrates you, but if you don’t know what frustration versus anger is, you might show it as anger,” Stern said. “It’s important for us to know how we feel, what triggered that feeling, what it means, and what does that feeling tell us about ourselves, others, or the situation?”


Before jumping in to insult the person who might have brought up a sensitive topic, Stern says taking a moment to pause might help make a conscious decision that won’t cause any bad blood.

“Be aware of your triggers, pause, then make a conscious choice about how you’re going to react and think about the impact of your response before you respond so you know what’s going to happen,” Stern said.

Dodging the question is okay since family members aren’t allowed to know everything about you, Stern says, but it’s also okay to set boundaries and make it clear that you’d rather not talk about your personal life.

“If someone asked you, ‘oh, I just heard you went through a breakup’, you might respond with ‘yes I did and it’s really new so I’d rather not talk about it'” , Stern said.

By setting boundaries, family members will know what is appropriate for discussion and hopefully avoid unsavory conversations in the future. Asking questions can also help establish clearer communication and try to build understanding with that family member who thinks certain topics should be widely discussed at large parties.

“For me, emotional intelligence is about curiosity, not judgment. So if we can, when someone asks you an emotionally charged question, or maybe a controversial question, you can ask” for what [are] are you asking that?” she said.

Flipping the question over to talk about it can also help ease any tension to avoid tense conversations over dinner.

“You can flip it around and say, ‘Tell me a little about your love life’, do more about them because people like to talk about themselves,” Stern said.


Emotional intelligence can not only help us understand our own emotions, but also how we treat others, Stern says. It’s essential to check how you can interact with others in social settings and see if you can be the bossy family member or friend at the party without realizing it.

Stern says most people have a poor sense of themselves and are often unaware of what they need to work on, such as communication, coping with stress or dealing with their own insecurities.

“Get yourself out of a situation and look up from above. Sometimes that takes the emotional charge out of things,” she said. “A good question you can ask yourself is ‘How am I helping the situation? How am I helping or hurting?'”

Stern recommends asking close friends and checking in with yourself to help identify areas of emotional intelligence that need improvement to connect better with others and with yourself.

“Being emotionally strong for the holidays is key and it’s about thinking smarter than your emotions, not letting a moment in time define you,” she said.

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