When holiday chit-chat hurts: Tips for handling upsetting personal questions from family

Expert advice on dealing with nosy but well-meaning relatives.

Expert advice on dealing with nosy but well-meaning relatives

A woman with long straight brown hair in a party blouse looking sad.
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

For some, it's a time-honoured holiday tradition: before you've even finished loading up your plate at the family dinner, Aunt Maria is grilling you about not having a partner (not knowing that you just got out of a terrible relationship). Or as you're topping up his glass of wine, Cousin Ari is asking when you're going to have a second kid (unaware that you've been trying for years).

Holiday gatherings can be a joyful time to catch up with relatives you don't get to see very often, but casual queries like these can be painful.

So why do they do it? "Most people do not make these comments to be rude and disparaging," said Janna Comrie, a psychotherapist at Comrie Counselling in Whitby, Ont. "Sometimes, sadly, when people are with people that they only see maybe once or twice or three times a year, these are the patterned conversations that we fall into." 

Just like when we chat with a stranger on the bus about the weather, these sorts of questions feel like safe, easy topics to keep the conversation going, she said. The thinking, said Comrie, goes something like this: "OK, well, we're done talking about work, you know, [so next is] How is your relationship going? Who are you dating? When are you thinking of having kids?"

Of course, parents or other relatives who know us better might be asking questions like these for more self-serving reasons. They could be desperate for grandbabies, or there might be traditional or cultural reasons behind their probing, said Comrie. But no matter the intention, how should you deal with it? 

When you know you'll likely be cornered at a family party, Comrie recommends doing some prep work. "Make a point of going into that situation with a bunch of conversation topics that you think people will be able to grab onto," she said. You could steer the talk toward something more neutral, like food or sports, for example. That way, if someone is hitting a nerve, you could say "Hey, you know, I saw this thing online" and change course, she suggests.

With some family members, however, changing the topic might not be enough to stop the questions. "Sometimes they keep digging because, like, we're not giving them what they're wanting to hear," said Vera Cheng, a psychotherapist and founder of Talk Therapy with Vera in Toronto. Older relatives, she said, might feel as if they didn't have a choice when they were growing up about whether to get married or have kids, so they are applying those same expectations to younger generations. But you don't have to answer their questions just because they ask. "It's also a choice that you can make about which questions you're wanting to answer," she said.

Comrie works with her patients to develop "canned responses" — phrases they can use over and over again without having to think about it. You could experiment with something like "Sorry, but I'm not talking about that today" or even "That's a really personal question. Why are you asking that?" The person might end up feeling put on the spot in the same way they'd been making you feel. 

Not that your goal should be making your family members feel uncomfortable. "I try to encourage people to approach their loved ones from a place of love and kindness and grace," said Comrie. You could also try leading with confusion, she suggests, such as playing up your curiosity about why someone is asking you about your love life. "That's not typically going to be met with anger," she said. More often than not, your relative will counter with some version of "I just want to see you happy." At which point, she said, you can reassure them you're good with where you're at.

It's best to try to avoid getting defensive, said Cheng, since your family member likely won't understand why you're upset. "They might even gaslight you, like: 'Why are you so angry every time I ask you that question?'" she said.

It's OK to feel frustrated when it comes to these types of interactions, according to Cheng. But she said, "Unfortunately, we have no control of the other person's behaviour." What you can do is remember to breathe and try to reframe how you are viewing the discussion. Remind yourself: "They're trying to make a conversation. They're curious and they care about my future," Cheng said.

You can also choose to ignore any unwanted comments or advice, said Comrie. "Sometimes it's better to just say, you know, 'Thanks for the tips,'" she said. She suggests having an exit strategy, particularly when you'd rather avoid an argument or if there is a threat of anger boiling over into violence. "If a conversation becomes overwhelming or you don't like it or it doesn't feel good, [there are] ways that you can excuse yourself … [like by saying] 'Hey, you know what, I'm really, really hot. I'm just going to step outside for a little bit of a walk.'" 

The other question Comrie gets asked a lot is "Do I have to go?" Her answer is no. "If you know that going to this family event is going to be something that it takes you days and days to recover from emotionally, physically, spiritually … you can say, 'You know what, I'm going to sit it out this year.'" Or she said you could skip part of it. If your family usually spends the entire day together, for example, you could just go for dinner or dessert. 

For many Canadians, there can also be a cultural aspect to these lines of questioning, where traditions or expectations play a more significant role, said Comrie. The success of their children, for example, can loom large over a parent's identity, and that can be challenging at a family gathering when everyone is trying to present their best selves. "[In] some cultures, you know, parents will actually say if [their adult children] don't get married or they don't have kids that it's a reflection on the parents," she said.

This is something Cheng has experienced herself as a Chinese Canadian. Most of her clients are also Asian, she said, and she can relate when they are frustrated with their relatives. "My [own] family or my parents are like, 'When are you getting married? Are you going to have kids? Don't you have a boyfriend?" Cheng doesn't let it bother her. "But I know some of my clients that come to see me, they have that family pressure," she said.

If, despite your best efforts, you leave a get-together feeling as if you were ambushed by a nosy relative, Comrie suggests soothing yourself with some perspective. Whether someone comments on your weight, your dating life or about having kids, you might want to ask, "Are they happy with their life?" Oftentimes the answer is no, Comrie said. "And if they're not happy … why would you take advice [from] them about how to be happy?" 

Ultimately, said Comrie, "You're making the choices that are best for you, and nobody else really needs to understand those." 


Jen Lauriault is a Collingwood, Ont.-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in Maclean’s, Today’s Parent and Chatelaine.

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