“Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No. No. We’re all in this together.” -Clark Griswold, Christmas Vacation
The holiday season is truly magical. The snow, the lights, the presents, the carolers, the sightings of Santa Claus himself, and the amount of stress that accompanies such a wonderful time of year! With the holidays come family meals and gatherings, and–for some–this is not all fun and games. Many families have one (or more) individual(s) who consistently manages to say something rude, spark controversy, offend others, arrive late, act inappropriately, etc. While most people are looking forward to decorating gingerbread houses, others are dreading getting around the difficult family member. If you can relate to this struggle with family, read on.
Regardless of how much you love your family, you are bound to run into an uncomfortable, annoying, or tense situation with a family member at some point during the holidays when so many personalities are congregated around the table. Here are four suggestions to keep the peace this holiday season:
Have realistic expectations. While it is good to hope for the best in people, you need to be realistic. If certain individuals have behaved a certain way for years, do not expect them to be any different this Christmas Eve dinner. When your Aunt Bethany makes her usual comment about your outfit or beard, be prepared to brush it off…because you expected it. Having realistic expectations of others will enable you to maintain your cool when they say something unnecessary or offensive. Because you expected it, you can choose to not let it ruin your evening.
Set boundaries. This one has several parts:
- Conversations: Plan to keep conversation conflict-free by avoiding potentially sensitive topics. Politics and religion are go-to topics for immediate controversy, but each family has specific triggers that can (and should) be avoided at happy holiday gatherings. Get everyone to agree that there are topics that simply will not be discussed because they only bring out the worst in everyone. Setting boundaries like this will hopefully keep the conversation from veering into a minefield of divisive issues. I also highly recommend having a pre-rehearsed line or two that you are confident saying if someone is going against set boundaries. Something like, “This is something I would prefer not to discuss right now, it is too heavy and we should be enjoying the party!” or, “I totally understand you feel that way; even though I have a different opinion, I still respect yours.”
- Timing: Be firm with what time you are starting and start at that time. Let everyone know if they are late, dinner and/or the activity will still start on time. There are some people who may consistently late in order to make dramatic entrances, be the focus of attention, and to demonstrate dominance or control. Do not give them that opportunity!
- Activities: If a certain game or activity sparks contention, rule it out. I have friends who have decided they simply cannot play basketball on opposing teams because it inevitably gets too competitive and contention ensues. Or maybe for your family it is UNO. Just be sure to avoid activities that do not unite or uplift your family. Also, be sure to avoid excessive alcohol consumption during the festivities; it does not bring out the best in anyone!
Use humor. Everyone has a button that can be pushed to the point of irritation. Whether it is political views, a rough patch at work, a nonexistent dating life, or a slew of other possibilities, no one knows said buttons better than family members. The best way to deflect intentional jabs is with a witty comment. If you take everything seriously or personally, you likely will not even be able to make it through the appetizers and drinks before the holiday dinner is ruined!
Control yourself. At the end of the day, you cannot control your sister, your mother, or your Cousin Eddie. The only thing you can control is yourself. Accept that. You are in control of your reaction, your mood, and your responses. If you have tried all of the above suggestion AND people show up late, engage in controversial topics, or be outright rude, remember that you are in control of YOU. Monitor yourself; if you find you are getting worked up or irritated, physically remove yourself from a conversation, room, or group of people. Take deep breaths. Get active and play a game; it is difficult to be drawn into an argument when engrossed in an activity that requires concentration, physical activity or laughter. Be grateful; think about what you are grateful for to minimize frustrations. Practice tolerance; remember that even you have offended someone in the past. Lastly, forgive your family for not being perfect and for detracting from the festivities and move on.
The holidays come but once a year. Soak these last weeks of 2018 in and do not let any social toxicity get in the way of the holiday cheer. I can assure you that, as you go into your family gatherings having prepared yourself with realistic expectations and set boundaries, you will be able to to control yourself by using humor and monitoring yourself. These are simple, yet powerful suggestions that will equip you with the tools you need to enjoy any family gathering this holiday season. Should you have questions or find you need additional guidance or assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me or schedule a session.
Wishing you and yours the happiest of holidays!
Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.