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Keep peace during holiday gatherings

November 16, 2017
Lisa M. Petsche

The holiday season is a hectic time for many people, due to the preparations and festivities that typically take place. Staying sane, not to mention enjoying this time of the year, is even more of a challenge for those who don’t get along well with their extended family.

Every family has dysfunction, of course, because no member is perfect. But some families are prone to more interpersonal tension than others, due to diverse personalities, circumstances, values and lifestyles among members.

Read on for some tips on how to cope with the almost inevitable stress inherent when relatives get together for the holidays.


Make it a point to practice self-care at this time of the year. Eat healthy foods, make time for exercise and get adequate sleep. Allow plenty of time to get ready for a family event, so you’re relaxed and feel your best.

Conjure up compassion for relatives who emanate negativity, bearing in mind that they are unhappy individuals. Set realistic expectations about family members’ behavior. The narcissist, non-stop talker or chronic complainer is not going to change. Plan to steer clear of them if possible, otherwise limit the amount of time you spend with them. Give yourself a pep talk in advance. Reassure yourself that you are up to the challenge of gracefully handling a few hours with anyone. If necessary, approach things as if you have a role in a play and, of course, must stay in character.

If you are particularly anxious about a gathering, invite a friend along for support. Aim to cut your visit short as a last resort. Plan something to look forward to afterward – for example, visiting your favorite café or watching a holiday movie.


During a gathering: Things to do and things to avoid
Avoid consuming alcohol; otherwise, limit yourself to one or two drinks. Disinhibition can cause you to say things you may regret.

Practice good listening skills: Pay attention, don’t interrupt and ask open-ended questions. Be conscious of your nonverbal language, keeping your posture open (avoid crossing your arms), making eye contact and nodding periodically. This will help you to come across positively.

Show courtesy toward everyone. When you can’t manage any more politeness toward a particular individual, find a reason to excuse yourself and move on.

Give people the benefit of the doubt when you wonder if they are being sarcastic or condescending. Use humor to defuse tension.

Count to 10 and refuse to take the bait when someone tries to one-up you or goad you into an argument. Instead, adopt a “stupid and cheerful” demeanor – signature advice from syndicated radio host and licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Joy Browne.

Stay away from sensitive or controversial topics and change the subject if others raise them.

Don’t participate in gossip or put-downs of others, or bring up unpleasant events.

Engage relatives positively by reminiscing about pleasant times or inquiring about something meaningful to them, such as their children or grandchildren, work, a hobby or a recent vacation.

Breathe deeply if you find yourself getting stressed. If that doesn’t help, head to the washroom or step outside, to compose yourself.


Parting thoughts
If you keep in mind that you can’t change anyone’s behavior except your own, and that it’s always within your power to be civil and even kind to a certain degree, you will make it through holiday gatherings without losing your composure or damaging relationships.

Petsche is a social worker and a freelance writer specializing in family life.

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