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Keep the Peace at Holiday Gatherings

Strategies that diffuse family tension



We share some of the happiest times in our lives with extended family. During the holiday season, even the closest families can have trouble getting along. With some strategic planning and a handful of ready, tactful responses, everyone can enjoy holiday celebrations together.

Avoid hot-button issues

You know which individuals and issues could cause trouble at your holiday get-together. “It’s perfectly fine to announce to everyone that certain topics are off limits,” says psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina, PhD. 

Mindi DeLisi, a mom from Burlington, NJ, says her family “puts all the petty stuff aside” for the holidays. 

Invite everyone

Make your guest list inclusive. Omitting someone can hurt her feelings and upset 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. 

Your parents and in-laws will want to spend special time with their kids and grandkids. Do your best to give everyone equal time together. 

If a single gathering won’t work, hold separate events on different days, or alternate holidays each year to give everyone a chance to connect. In Pennsylvania mom Jen Migliaccio’s family, “Each sibling hosts a holiday, so everyone knows where they’ll be each holiday.”

Take a team approach

On the day of the event, use place cards to keep would-be opponents apart. Enlist help from family peacekeepers. “If Uncle Marty tends to be offensive, seat him next to someone who knows how to put a lid on him,” Tessina suggests. 

Too much alcohol also can cause problems. Ask responsible drinkers to watch out for guests who might drink too much.

Seek peace

Even smart planning can’t prevent every problem. Laugh off inappropriate 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 topics. 

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 psychotherapist Tina Gilbertson, LPC. If your mother-in-law says, “I see you’ve been too busy to keep up with housework,” ask, “What do you mean?” The question forces her to explain or back down. 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. Take a walk outside when family togetherness gets overwhelming. You’ll appreciate all your kin more easily when you’ve had a breath of fresh air.

Heidi Smith Luedtke is a personality psychologist and family peacekeeper. 

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