It’s the most wonderful time of the year… if you get along with your extended family.
The reality for most, though? There’s a lot of room for conflict during the hectic holiday months: Stress levels reach a fever pitch. Long-simmering familial issues can rise to the surface. And there’s always that one relative who thinks it’s appropriate to ask intrusive questions about your personal life over Christmas dinner.
We’re here to help. Below, family therapists share the most common issues relatives face during the holidays and how to deal with each. (Having a tall glass of spiked eggnog in your hand might help, too.)
Issue No. 1: Relatives who rehash old arguments or bring up past mistakes.
Let bygones be bygones should be your motto this time of year. Unfortunately, there’s something about families coming together around the holidays that seems to make people eager to bring up old hurts, arguments and mistakes, said Anna Poss, a therapist in Chicago, Illinois.
Oftentimes, the issues sting: “Mom told me so much about her childhood when she was in hospice care,” an uncle might say. “It’s a shame that more of you weren’t there for her during those last few days.”
The solution: Acknowledge the old hurt in a neutral way― “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “it is unfortunate” for instance ― but then Poss recommends redirecting the conversation.
“Simply bring up a less stressful, more recent topic,” she explained. “If they continue to try to hijack the conversation into negative waters, you can say calmly and directly that you are not interested in that conversation and would rather discuss something else.”
Issue No. 2: Disagreements over how the kids in the family should behave or be disciplined.
Your parenting and discipline style may vary greatly from your relatives’ style and expectations. “How can you let your son talk so disrespectfully to you,” your great aunt might say when your kid speaks his mind in a way you find fine. “You’re his mother!”
The solution: Your parenting style is, of course, no one else’s business. But there’s often generational divides on how kids should behave. If the comments irk you, gracefully remove yourself from the situation, or suggest to your relative that the two of you simply have different disciplinary styles, said Fran Walfish, a family and psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California, and author of “The Self-Aware Parent.”
If you’re the great aunt in this situation, “remind yourself that it’s not yourresponsibility to correct the kids in the way they speak to their mother, it’s hers,” Walfish said.
Issue No. 3: Relatives who put pressures on others about the future.
Family members, especially older ones, usually have hopes for the next steps you take. It’s understandable ― they’re invested in your life! Oftentimes, these hopes get brought up at holiday gatherings, which isn’t an ideal setting for these loaded, sensitive conversations: “Still single? Do you think you’ll ever get married?” they might say. Or “You’ve been together a few years now, when are you going to have a baby?” Maybe it’s a comment about work: “Are you still at that same job? Have you thought about looking elsewhere?”
While usually well-meaning, the questions come off as intrusive ― and holiday gatherings are neither the time or place for these kinds of conversations, said Mahlet Endale, a licensed psychologist based in Atlanta, Georgia.
Plus, it’s hard to know the backstory, especially if you’re not in regular contact with your relatives: What if the person you’re asking is in a toxic relationship or just got dumped? What if they had a miscarriage recently? What if they want to move on from their job and become a lawyer, but can’t seem to pass the LSAT?
The solution: If you’re the inquiring mind in this situation, ask your relative if they’re interested in talking about the subject, Endale said. If they say yes, pull them aside (no one else need to hear this) and ask questions to understand where they stand on the topic. Then ― and only then ― you can ask for permission to share your thoughts.
“Be aware that someone may say no to any of these questions,” she said. “If that’s the case, invite a conversation to understand why it’s a no and be ready to back off if they’re not ready to discuss this. The more respect you show for what the person needs, the more you show yourself to be a thoughtful and caring.”
If you’re the one being interrogated or receiving unsolicited advice, try to pivot the conversation: Make a joke, or tell your relative you’d rather talk about this later, Endale said. Or you can very clearly state you don’t want to talk about it.
“In most healthy family dynamics, one of these will work in redirecting uncomfortable topics,” she said. “If you know there is a topic you’ve repeatedly been pressured about and you know that it will continue at the holidays despite your request for it to stop, it’s OK for you to think about limiting your family time.”
Issue No. 4: Conflict over whose family you’ll visit in a new relationship
Even couples at the height of the honeymoon phase fall prey to arguments about where they’ll spend the holidays. (This is especially if there’s a big geographic distance between the families.)
It’s a complicated issue that can feel like a game of tug of war, Endale said. On the one hand, the pressure can come from the in-laws. But it also might be an internal conflict between the couple: After years of tradition, it can be hard to spend that first holiday away from your family.
The solution: Set clear manageable expectations early in your relationship about what’s important to you when it comes to all the holidays.
“Sit down with your significant other and have a conversation about what holidays mean to both sides of the family and to each of you,” Endale said. “What family rituals and traditions do you want to see in your partnership? How much travel is realistic in terms of time and finances?”
Once you’ve hashed that out, use the responses to outline a realistic game plan for how you’ll spend the next few holiday seasons.
Click Read More for three more common issues.