How to survive the holidays with extended family: the conversations

By Rita Buettner

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We’ve all been there—trapped in a miserable conversation.

And somehow it’s harder at the holidays when you’re talking to a relative you see once or twice a year.

Still, even if Uncle Fred criticizes your career choice, Aunt Sally shrieks in horror that you’ve put on weight since last Christmas, Great-Uncle Stanley wants to talk politics for hours, and Cousin Martha cries because you won’t eat her pigs feet and sauerkraut stew, you can make it through the party—and maybe even with a smile.

Here’s how, courtesy of faculty experts at the Loyola Clinical Centers.

Set your own boundaries and do not cross them.

If your mom always pulls you in by talking about your weight, do not cross that boundary.

Respond in sincerity, not anger.

When your mom says, “Do you really need that second piece of cake?” don’t be snide and say, “No, do you?” Instead, say, “Mom, that was incredibly hurtful,” or “Oh, wow. That was really inappropriate with extended family here.”

Avoid talking about hot topics.

Anything could be a hot topic. You might preface the gathering by making a welcoming announcement of how you expect things to go. “What a blessing that we’re all gathered here. Let’s make sure we’re all able to enjoy each other’s company, not pushing each other’s buttons.” A statement such as this helps a family model for the next generation how family members should act towards one another.

If necessary, redirect the conversation.

What I do is the same thing I do with kids—redirecting the conversation. If I’m circulating and I hear, “Here we go again,” I see if I can redirect. “Did you notice they’re putting the dessert out? I see they have your favorite cheesecake.”

Humor can help.

Making light of the conflict or joking about it can diffuse the tension. You want to be able to connect with that person in a way where it still honors the person, it doesn’t put them down, and it isn’t calling negative attention to them.

Don’t be afraid to walk away from a conversation.

Self-preservation is every animal’s instinct, and human beings are the only animals that ignore it to save face. Only human beings say, “Even though I get a weird feeling in my stomach about getting on this elevator with this guy, I’m going to get on it anyway because I don’t want to look rude.”

When you’re done, you’re done.

If you get to the point where you have to leave, say to the person, “I’m just going to be sincere. I’m not comfortable right now. I think it’s time to go.” There might be awkwardness, and that’s fine. Parents should want to demonstrate that lesson for their children, as well.

Also in this series:

Preparing for the Family Gathering

Are family gatherings mandatory?

The College Student Edition

Grieving a Loss at the Holidays

Navigating family gift giving

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