How to Enjoy Holiday Dinners Without the Fights

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Ahh the holidays, so much delicious food to look forward to! Between the turkeys, the cookies, the side dishes, and the drinks, the next few months usually roll by as a blur of over-indulging in all of our favorites. This year, of course, looks a little different, with Zoom calls replacing family gatherings and folks across the country trying to keep up the family traditions while staying safe. 

But with all that, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed all that much, and that’s the looming sense of stress and dread many of us feel about gathering together with family. Unlike your friends or romantic relationships, none of us for the most part chose our family. And even in the most functional of families there’s still tense dynamics, taboo subjects, long-standing rivalries, and the list goes on. Add an especially politically-divisive climate to the mix amidst the pandemic confusion and you can surely see why some people are ready to just raincheck the rest of 2020. 

But there’s hope! You don’t need to suffer through the after-dinner heartburn brought on by Uncle Joe’s conspiracy rants or your cousin’s toxic drama that makes ever gathering into a pity party for her life. Nope! THIS YEAR can be different…with a little help from the pros. Dr. Harriet Kiviat, to be exact, a licensed Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor who has some practical tips for finessing your way through even the most tenuous family dynamics to focus on the good happy parts.

Change Up the Usual Script

“The thing that keeps coming into my mind is creating a judgment free zone. We have this huge judgment that sits inside of us, that we’re already prejudging everybody who’s going to walk through the door. Because history tells us this is how they’re going to be.” Instead Dr. Harry (as she’s known) suggests changing up that narrative.

“One thing that I know works, because I tried it, is doing something different. You surprise the other person by not responding in the way they expect you to respond. So if you can make your mind up to do something different, so when the person that walks through the door, or walks onto your screen, if you’re doing a zoom holiday, and you know that you’re going to have stress because they’re going to act in a certain way, you take control and act in a totally different way than it’s expected.”

Play Interference

Dr. Harry points out that each of us has the power to impact where situations go. “If one sibling does not get along with the other sibling, and you know that the other sibling has issues or whatever, don’t play into that. When that person says, ‘I’m so stressed out over, blah, blah, blah, coming to dinner,’ or ‘being part of the dinner, what are they going to say? What are they going to do?’ It’s expected that you’re going to triangulate into the situation. So what I do is, I take myself out of it. It can’t be a triangle if there’s only two people.” She suggests having stock replies at the ready for the situations you anticipate arising. “Say, ‘let’s not worry about that right now. What are you making?’ Change the subject to something more positive. Detach and disengage.”

Keep Convos Light for the Holidays

What about situations where someone confronts you with an issue during a gathering or wants to talk about working through a fight or making amends. Just the thought can send waves us stress down most of our bodies. But Dr. Harry advises guests to focus on enjoying the holidays, rather than making them into a family therapy session. “What I would say is ‘I’d really love to talk to you about this. How about we enjoy today and let’s put a time on the calendar, that we can sit down and have a conversation about it.’ That shows your validating the importance of what they’re saying. Things are going to come up on the holidays because we’re all at a heightened level. So tell them, ‘Let’s make it a point to get together to discuss.’ And then take out your phone and set a date.”

Remember to Have Fun

This year has been rough and we’re all feeling intense emotions. It’s easy to feel the heaviness of the times, particularly during the holiday. The urge might be there to make the time emotion-filled and weighted with the feelings of sadness, gratitude, and longing.  But that doesn’t have to translate into a Blue Christmas. Dr. Harry gives an insightful example and how to change things up. “Typically families might go around the table or go across a zoom call and ask everyone to explain what they’re thankful for. This is an anxiety-inducing thing for people in good times! So I would say, let’s not do that. Let’s have some fun instead.” 

Focus on That One Good Thing 

“Everybody has something that you like about them. Everybody, even the people who you dislike the most, or you have the most problems with, there’s something about them that you respect or enjoy or get pleasure from, or could recognize that they do, even though you might not agree with it,” explains Dr. Harry. “Use that. Ask that person a question about it.” She says this questioning can be a great way to relieve some of your anxiety and puts the focus on the other person to talk about something they enjoy discussing. “When you engage someone in what interests them, then they can come back with a conversation because you’ll get them talking and they’ll want to most likely keep it going.”

Take Responsibility Instead of Blame 

Dr. Harry urges people to take responsibility for themselves during the holidays. But she also recognizes it’s very easy not to do this. “Let’s take blame out of the equation. Just reflect on yourself. It’s okay if someone had an issue with something you did, own it. What are they going to do on their end, are they going to hold onto that negativity? At the end of the day, there has to be a moment of acceptance and turning the page of forgiveness. 

Remember the Message of the Holiday

Thanksgiving is about gratitude. That’s easy to forget. Dr. Harry reminds us all that we each have a lot to be grateful for. “It’s not about pain or dispute. We’re giving thanks for what? For getting up this morning and putting both feet on the floor! And if you’re not able to stand, just opening your eyes, taking that next breath. That’s ThanksGiving.  

Dr. Harry has four lessons she lives by:

  • If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 
  • If it’s not working, throw it out of the window and do something different. 
  • Baby steps make big changes. 
  • And miracles do happen (remember that last one during the winter holidays that are all about miracles!).

It’s important to remember that the holidays can be a challenging time for many people, and not just adults. Suicide rates escalate during the holidays and winter months. With the pandemic still isolating many people and causing added mental strain, it’s important to keep communication open and be on the look out for signs of suicidal thoughts.

Dr. Jonathan Singer, the President of the American Association of Suicidology has some advice on the matter. He advises parents to open up a dialogue with their kids and teens. Letting teens and young adult children know that they are not a burden is essential. “And you can say, ‘Literally, this is not a burden, I would do anything for you to share this with me. The burden is you not sharing with me.’ “ Dr. Singer also suggests creating a communication group with the families of other teens, so you can reach out if you have a concern. Finally, Dr. Singer advises everyone to take on more of the responsibility for suicide prevention.

Dr. Singer says that many times women and mothers in particular feel overwhelmed and under appreciated. This can be particularly true during the holidays. “In this society, it’s not okay to be a woman and say, I’m not able to handle this.” It’s important during these months, to check in with others, listen without judgement, and offer support to those in need. For more information and resources, you can visit, https://suicidology.org/

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