Your family doesn’t just know how to push your buttons, it installed them in the first place. But that doesn’t mean family events are destined to be terrible blowups. Almost no one sits down at a dinner table planning to upset everyone else there.
Here are some tips for dealing with difficult relatives and tricky relationships over the holidays, whether it’s an overly critical father or a grandson you just don’t see eye-to-eye with.
Stick to the things you have in common.
“Instead of looking for the things that make us different, look for the things that we have in common,” said Mike Dow, a psychotherapist and best-selling author. “If you’re in a family, you certainly have a few things in common — whether you’re related by blood or by marriage or by love.”
How family members are doing, sports, pop culture and travel are all subjects where you can find commonalities with pretty much any relative. For example, even if you and your nephew fall on opposite sides of the political spectrum, you are both likely to be pretty big fans of his parents. Instead of arguing over divisive issues, talk about what his parents were like when you were all growing up. Or just bond over a shared love of 1980s Tom Cruise movies. According to Dr. Dow, finding commonalities like these “enhances our sense of connection” — and certainly makes for a better holiday dinner.
Focus on yourself and the things you can control.
Dr. Dow recommended remembering the old serenity prayer (even if you do it in a totally secular way) — “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change those I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” He suggested that people use it as a mantra for dealing with tricky family situations.
You can’t control how other family members will act, but you can control how you respond to their actions. If you worry about your family dinner and seeing all your relatives, he recommended taking time earlier in the day to do a bit of self-care to “give you the emotional resilience to get through some of those conversations.” Practice some yoga, use a mindfulness app like Calm or just go for a long walk. If you go into the meal in a good mood, things will go better for everyone.
Similarly, don’t sit down to dinner with an agenda. You are never going to convince your niece that video gaming isn’t a viable career option (it may well be) or talk your father out of self-publishing his erotica over the course of one holiday meal. If there are conversations you feel you need to have, save them for another time.
Take the opportunity to learn.
“It’s really easy to be in a room with people who have all of the same opinions, who are about the same age, who make about the same amount of money and who have the same interests,” Dr. Dow said. “It’s quite a bit harder to be in a room with people who have different viewpoints and are from different generations.” But, he continued, “in many ways the people that we have difficulties with are our greatest teachers.”
Dr. Dow suggested asking yourself what you could learn from the situation you’re in — even if it’s only how much you have grown. Talk to your relatives and see if you can see things from their point of view. Learn what it is they care so much about and, most important, why. They have different life experiences. You don’t have to agree with them, but it doesn’t mean you can’t listen and learn — especially with society as divided as it is now.
And, in the worst cases, where you’re dealing with a very toxic situation, Dr. Dow suggested viewing it as a boot camp. “Look at this person and say to yourself, ‘If I can stay nonreactive here, then I can get through anything.’” You will, at least, learn some patience.
Don’t take things personally.
Taking things too personally is a problem that “tends to rear its ugly head when we are at family gatherings,” Dr. Dow warned. When we disagree with family members, “we tend to take things and say, ‘Oh, something is wrong with me,’” he said. But that’s the wrong attitude — instead, he said, “Secretly in our own minds say, ‘You know what, something is wrong with them.’”
If a relative seems determined to pick a fight, pries too much into your private life or disagrees with everything you say, view it as a reflection of who they are, not who you are. “Learning not to take things personally can be a really incredible skill for all of us,” he said.
One exercise Dr. Dow uses with his clients is to imagine you have X-ray glasses that “allow you to see the childhood hurts of all your family members.” He said, “I guarantee if you have someone who is rude or critical or judgy or prying or whatever, that person is just passing on generational hurts.”
If you imagine you can “see all of the things that made the person that way, you can just sit there and let things roll off your back,” he said. “And you can move through this holiday season with a little more grace and compassion.”
Step away from the table.
Despite all your best efforts, family events can get out of hand — especially when alcohol is involved. Dr. Dow recommended that you keep aware of yourself and how you’re physically responding to the situation. “Your heart rate doesn’t lie.”
If you feel yourself getting physically uncomfortable, he suggested trying a conversational “rescue attempt” — things like “using some humor, changing the subject or diverting attention away to something else by bringing out the next course or turning on the television to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.”
And if those gentle attempts don’t work, you need to know yourself. Some people can “just sit there and wait until the conversation changes on its own,” Dr. Dow said, while others “are very affected by other people and it’s very easy for them to have a very bad Thanksgiving” if they have to suffer through a triggering conversation. If you’re in the latter group, he suggested leaving the table altogether, if only for a few minutes, to gather yourself.
Focus on having fun.
“Enjoy yourself!” stressed Dr. Dow. “Unless you have a history with your family where you need to be on guard, I would really say enjoy yourself. The more people are at ease, the more conversations tend to flow, the more we can really just let ourselves be who we are.”
And for those people who have reason to be concerned, he recommended “being self-aware, and having boundaries and an exit strategy.” If things get too uncomfortable, be prepared to step away or leave the table.
But for everyone else? “Really, just enjoy the moment,” he said. “Because that’s what the holidays are all about.”