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How to Cope When Old Family Dynamics Disrupt Holiday Visits

Therapists’ advice on avoiding conflict

Parents and Son
Zohar Laza

When everyone packs into Grandma’s house for the holidays, no matter their age, family members often fall (or get dragged) into their old childhood roles. Even adults who now have kids of their own and successful careers can be made to feel like children again. And that can create ... conflict. Here’s how to survive your holiday get-together, according to family therapists.

Tips for adult children

Set boundaries. Ahead of the gathering, tell parents, siblings or other attendees about any topics you’re not willing to discuss. For instance, it’s perfectly appropriate to let people know you will not get involved in political conversations at the dinner table or you don’t want to rehash your childhood victories or embarrassments.

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Prepare for the weird. Visualize in advance how you wish to react if someone treats you inappropriately or ignores your requests per the tip above. Is it best to respond with humor and sternness, or by walking away or simply doing a breathing exercise and letting the moment pass? The more you can anticipate what’s coming and plan a positive response, the better you’ll be able to deal with the moment and keep enjoying the bigger picture.

Ask the right way. Want your parents to act differently toward you? How you request that makes a world of difference. “Enlisting them in the change, explaining you know they’re coming from a good place, gives people the benefit of the doubt,” says Erin Cassidy-Eagle, a clinical professor specializing in geriatric psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine. For example, they may respond to your lack of interest in a dish they tell you they’re preparing with, “What do you mean, you don’t eat that? You love it!” In that situation, say, “I often feel like I hurt your feelings if I don’t eat a special dish you’ve made that I know is coming from a place of love. But I’m trying to eat differently now. Could I get your help to create a little more balance on the table?”

Designate a support person. Prearrange to have someone to communicate with — either in person or electronically — when you need a break from your family, says Mudita Rastogi, a clinical professor and licensed marriage and family therapist with the Family Institute at Northwestern University. Tell that person in advance that when you reach out, you want to be “talked down.” You’re looking to be reminded that you’re supposed to be enjoying your time with family rather than feeling exasperated.

Tips for parents

Talk ahead of time. Before the kids and their families come home for the holidays, arrange an honest, two-way conversation about what they’re hoping to get out of the visit and their preferences around the agenda. (“Do you want to have a big dinner?” “Is it OK if we invite the neighbors over?”) Now’s also the time to communicate your expectations and what you’re hoping to get out of their visit.

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Don’t assume. People inevitably grow and change — even your own babies. Your adult son may no longer eat those peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches he loved as a kid, or your grown daughter’s values may have shifted since she was a teenager. Keep an open mind and get to know them as adults, rather than focusing on who they were as young children.

Avoid choosing sides. It’s easy to get sucked into family arguments between siblings or other family members. Picking a side is what Rastogi calls “triangulating,” and it can make family conflict worse. If someone tries to pull you into their dispute, empathize with them and offer support without condoning what they’re saying.

Schedule time apart. When the entire family has to do every activity together, it’s a recipe for conflict. Schedule one-on-one time with various family members to allow relationships to grow and create space for quiet time.

Offer support, not advice. The number one thing adult children are looking for from their parents is approval, says Cassidy-Eagle. They don’t want guidance or critiques — they want to hear they’re doing a good job. (“You’re a really great parent.”) Remember that even well-intentioned advice can be interpreted as criticism.