During the holiday season, even the closest families can experience friction. If your mother-in-law can’t quit complaining about this year’s contentious election, or Uncle Bob launches into another lifestyle debate, take heart. With advanced planning and a handful of tactful responses at the ready, your holiday celebration can be enjoyable for everyone.
Step 1: Identify the Issues
Let’s be honest. The topics that can turn a joyous family dinner into a war of words are not a big secret to anyone. You already know which individuals and issues are likely to lead to trouble. Make a list of possible triggers so you can decide how to handle them. Discussions of money, religion and politics often lead to arguments. Health and relationship issues – such as addictions, affairs or divorces – can also cause conflict.
“It’s perfectly fine to announce to everyone that certain topics are off limits for this occasion,” says Tina B. Tessina, PhD, Long Beach, Calif., psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage. If you know your sister wants to share her anti-vaccination advice with you, invite her to do so before the big day, over coffee. When she’s finished, remind her that you want to keep family celebrations festive and ask her to avoid sticky subjects for the good of the group.
Step 2: Invite Everyone
When it comes to the guest list, experts say it is best to be inclusive. Leaving someone out can hurt the feelings of that individual and other relatives. “Be generous in sharing family time with the in-laws” as well, says Deborah Merrill, PhD, associate professor of sociology at Clark University and author of Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law: Understanding the Relationship and What Makes Them Friends or Foe. Your parents and your in-laws will want to spend special time with their kids and grandkids. Bad feelings fester if one side of the family always gets second-class status.
After making the invites, arrange for activities to keep busy and focused. Have craft supplies on hand to give kids (and grownups) a constructive way to express themselves. Family members might make their own place cards, write holiday haiku, or paint gift boxes or ornaments. Outdoor activities, a walk in a nearby park or game of flag football, also channel social energy in healthy directions. Planned activities give distant relatives a fun way to get reacquainted.
Step 3: Take a Team Approach
Use place cards to keep would-be opponents where you want them – at opposite ends of the table. Enlist help from family peacekeepers if you’re still concerned things could get out of hand. You will feel more relaxed knowing others are ready to step in.
Too much alcohol can also cause problems. Consider pouring wine only with dinner and ask responsible drinkers to watch out for guests with a history of alcohol problems. If behavior gets out of line, a designated driver should take the individual home to ensure loved ones stay safe.
Step 4: Seek Peace
Even smart planning can’t prevent every problem. Laugh off out-of-hand comments if possible. When your Dad takes a jab at your brother’s job, say, “We knew we could count on you to say that, Dad!” and move on to other ideas. Address tough issues another time. Say, “Now’s not the time to tackle that topic. Who is ready for pie?”
Direct fire – on you or another family member – can be hard to dismiss. When your skinny sister asks your overweight aunt, “Do you really think you should eat all that?” you can’t just make a joke of it. Buffer the comment by saying, “Mary, don’t listen to her. You’re lovely just the way you are,” Tessina says. Refocus the conversation by asking Aunt Mary about her favorite hobby or movie.
Another way to keep the conflict from escalating is to “reply with a question that puts the focus on the person who made the comment,” says Portland, Ore., psychotherapist Tina Gilbertson, LPC, author of Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them. If your mother-in-law says, “I see you’ve been too busy to keep up with housework,” ask, ‘What do you mean?’ or ‘Why do you say that?’ This forces her to say what she really means or back out of the attack. If her criticism escalates, respond with silence. “This leaves the person’s words ringing in their own ears, and everyone else’s,” Gilbertson says.
You may feel especially vulnerable during the holidays and it is okay to “put some boundaries around yourself,” says Gilbertson. Be polite, but stick to impersonal topics. This sends a subtle stand-down signal to others and keeps you from getting dragged into family drama. Take a walk outside when togetherness gets overwhelming. You’ll be better able to appreciate all the members of your crazy clan when you’ve had a breath of fresh air.