Family Tension? Difficult Relatives? How-To's for a More Harmonious Holiday
If your family has difficulty staying in the same room for an extended time, these tips are for you
Holidays can bring out the best and the worst in families. Even in families that enjoy each other, it’s not at all unusual for the adult children to start acting in patterns they learned as siblings growing up together or as rebellious teens. For families with simmering conflicts, the pressure to be together for any extended length of time can reach a boiling point.
We all have some say in which way it goes. If yours is a family that has difficulty staying in the same room with each other for an extended time, here are some guidelines for making the holiday time with family memorable — in a good way.
Accept people as they are. Holiday time is not the time to confront someone about old or current hurts or to try to educate them about their downer effect on the rest of the gang. They haven’t changed in decades so why would you think that a talking-to now will make a difference? Save yourself and the family from the inevitable fallout from an argument.
Practice some verbal judo. Just because someone invites you to replay an old fight or participate in a current competition doesn’t mean you have to play. If you feel baited, bullied or simply on the receiving end of a thoughtless comment, don’t respond in kind. Instead, do as the politicians do: Deflect the comment with a question that will engage the speaker or introduce a story they might enjoy. If someone offers an unwanted critique, simply say something neutral like, “I’ll have to think about that” or “That’s such an interesting insight.” No sarcasm, please. You can promptly forget whatever it was. Just move the conversation to something more neutral.
Set the kids up for a positive visit. Kids who are over-tired, over-stimulated or underfed are one cross word from a meltdown. Make sure they have napped and had a snack before you hit the door. Try to talk to the relatives about limiting the number or nature of the gifts. This may not work (see #1) but sometimes relatives who don’t see your family often really don’t know the age, stage and interests of the children. It only takes a tactful conversation to help a willing relative be the best gift-giver ever.
Limit your intake of alcohol. Most family debacles are fueled by too much beer or wine or too many cocktails. You can’t monitor or mandate other people’s partying but you do have control of your own. Nurse a drink for a long period of time, switch to seltzer after one or two or forgo libations altogether.
Related: 4 Ways to Argue More Fairly
Plan for a graceful and appreciative exit. If family get-togethers are always problematic, plan an “emergency exit” for yourself. Create a pressing responsibility that limits the time you can stay. Ask a friend to call to check in at a certain time. If things aren’t going well, you can use the call as a reason to leave. Make sure you always have transportation available. Then trust your instincts. You know these people. When you think things are going to disintegrate, express your thanks for a wonderful time, tell everyone how lovely it was to see them, convey your regrets that you can’t stay longer and go.
Hopefully you won’t need any of these tactics. Hopefully you will have the kind of time together that is the stuff of old holiday musicals. But if you love difficult people who are likely to be difficult, be prepared. You do have some power to bring out their best.
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