We all know the holidays are meant to be a joyous time, full of gatherings and parties with friends, coworkers and family. However, for many, the holidays are a time when painful relationship issues, family problems, and toxic topics surface. And this can create some very tense and unpleasant situations.
Whether you struggle with heated political conversations, dysfunctional family dynamics, substance abuse issues. or other, Dr. Kathy Nickerson, a licensed psychologist has created a quick tip guide to help you navigate this year’s holidays with ease.
Dr. Kathy’s Guide to Navigating the Holidays:
- Avoid super hot topics. The holidays are NOT the time to hash out your political views with your uncle, debate the pros/cons of Roe v. Wade, debunk your nephew’s wacky views on the flat earth, or convince your cousin that Scientology isn’t a real religion. You may be right, but Thanksgiving dinner is not the time for this kind of chat.
- Prioritize feelings over being right. The point of a family gathering during the holidays is to connect and feel good. So make sure your attitude and behavior is in line with that. There’s no prize for being right and proving that Grandma doesn’t understand the nuances of investing. Don’t go down that path. Talk about happy things, reminisce about good memories, tell jokes, or play a game.
- Don’t poke the bear. If you know there’s a sore spot or a tense subject for a family member, avoid that topic. You do not need to poke the bear about bring up a painful moment. Even if you feel the matter is important or should be talked about, a family gathering is not the place. Much better to talk about sore spots 1 on 1 and in advance of a family get-together.
- Reflect before you react. Before you head to any social or family gathering, get clear on what your intent is; that is… why are you doing this? Are you heading to your in-laws to show your partner that you love them and support their having a solid relationship with their family? Then act accordingly and do what you set out to do. Are you headed to your brother’s because you want to stay connected to your nephews even after the divorce? Then make that your focus.
- Be helpful, don’t cause unnecessary problems. Want to stay out of trouble and look like a hero? Be helpful. Fold napkins, set the table, pick up trash… whatever needs doing. If you’re busy being helpful, it’s hard for people to criticize or pick fights.
- Manage the mischief. Look out for moments that are going sideways and see if you can help keep things on track. Is your sister-in-law talking about dead bodies again during dinner? Redirect her and ask her to tell you what positive things she’s learned from all those FBI shows. Or bring up a whole new topic… what’s a great book or show that someone’s seen lately? What new restaurant or recipe has someone tried?
- Be mindful with alcohol. Most holiday gatherings include a little bit (or a lot!) of drinking, so pay attention. If you let yourself get too sloshed, you’re at risk of doing or saying something hurtful. Even the most mindful person gets sloppy because, like it or not, alcohol does impair or judgment. Make a deal with yourself before the party; something like, “I’m only going to have two glasses of wine.” Plan a ride home if you’ll need it and help others who are going down the wrong path. If you see your tipsy aunt falling into the Christmas tree, help her sit down, get water, and re-focus.
- Remember: Everyone’s favorite topic is themselves. If you ever get stuck trying to make conversation or want to push the conversation in a different direction, remember that everyone loves to talk about themselves. So ask a question about someone’s life or personality or experiences. My go-to is: “What is something really surprising about you that almost no one knows?” Also good, “What is your favorite memory from childhood and why?”
- Bring a deck of cards (trust me).. I take a deck with me to every family gathering and breaking them out has saved me from many awkward conversations! So has cleaning dishes, but the cards are way more fun.
- Take care of yourself! These are your holidays and your memories too, so take care of yourself. Need a break? Go for a walk. Feeling upset? Go relax in the other room or hideout in the bathroom if you need to. You are allowed to have your feelings and deal with those feelings privately. Feel hurt or disrespected? Try to ask for the change you need in a peaceful, respectful way. And if all else fails, you can leave and say that you all can try again to get together soon. Don’t close the door on family, but do hold your boundaries and insist on being treated with respect. Make a game plan before you go to an event with your partner so that you’ll both be on the same page. I like codeword “Pineapple” to signal, “This is bad, we gotta get out of here.”
About Dr. Kathy:
Dr. Kathy Nickerson is a licensed clinical psychologist and nationally recognized relationship expert who has helped thousands of couples. Over the past 20 years, Kathy has presented marriage and relationship advice at more than 70 conferences, while authoring more than 85 professional articles and books and is launching the first of its kind Infidelity Tool Kit in November, 2019. She has successfully helped thousands of couples in her private practice and via thoughtfully crafted online therapy sessions designed for each couple’s unique needs. Her goal is to help as many couples as possible to strengthen and heal their relationships.
You can also visit https://www.consumersadvocate.org/online-therapy for more info about online therapy programs during the holiday season.