Families can be great – but they can also get under your skin like nobody else. Family dynamics, when they include some long-standing rivalries or unresolved issues, can make your celebratory dinner tense.

Maybe your brother has always felt it necessary to verbally tear you down and belittle your occupation. Maybe your uncle has always attacked your religion, your politics, your romances or your lifestyle. Either way, you’re worried that conflicts may escalate to the point of violence. Is there anything you can do (short of not going) to keep things calmer?

Nobody wants to end up in jail

You’ve got time to prepare yourself, so go in with a plan. This can mean different things to different people, but consider these options:

  • Give yourself space. If the family gathering is pretty large, try to occupy yourself away from the person who intentionally tries to aggravate you. If they’re in the kitchen, go to the game room and hang out with your younger cousins.
  • Use diversionary tactics. It’s hard to engage with someone whose eyes are glued to a television. Throw on the Macy’s parade or the big game and keep your focus on that, not your antagonist’s attempts to draw you into a debate.
  • Walk away. If you can sense an argument is starting, just bow out and go for a pre-dinner or post-dinner walk. Both exercise and a break from the situation can help you calm down and give you time to think about what you’re going to do next.
  • Anticipate what they’re going to say. If you know what the other person is likely to say to try to needle you, you can steal their thunder and take away their power by planning for it. A quirky response to a cutting remark can throw the other party off their game and amuse you without escalating. When they say something vicious, respond with a compliment or a comment that makes it seem like you didn’t even hear them.

Ultimately, even your best anger-management strategies can fall short if the other person is determined to get into a fight. You have a natural right to defend yourself. If you end up charged with assault because of the situation, find out what it takes to mount an aggressive defense.