Family coming to town for the holidays? Here’s how to diffuse those awkward conversations

Mother frustrated in kitchen setting
Thanksgiving! Lots of food, lots of family, lots of fun ... for some.

Although this is the season to be thankful, your stress level may rise and long buried emotions may bubble up when family and close friends come to town – and share the same space for an extended period of time. No matter how much you may want peace, remember that not everyone has the same viewpoints – even if they grew up in the same household. And that’s OK.

Here are some expert tips from Center for Child Counseling on how to tolerate – and even enjoy – that big family gathering:

  1. Relax
    The first step in managing the possibility of family conflict is being aware of what you bring to the table (literally, and figuratively) and where everyone else stands emotionally. Every behavior or reaction has a feeling behind it. Experts say that in order to relate and reason with others, we must regulate ourselves (feel emotionally safe and be physically calm). So how do you do that? Start by tapping into your safe place – take deep breaths, use a stress ball or do a pleasant activity prior to getting to the dinner table. This could be something you do alone or as a family. You can sing, dance, play a game, etc. When you feel emotionally safe, you will approach others with more ease and that will make those around you more relaxed. 
  2. Actively listen
    Once everyone is more relaxed, then you can have an open conversation. Wondering what to do if someone starts talking about something we all don't really meet eye to eye on, such as politics, parenting styles or just how different the world was 25 years ago? First, actively listen to what the other person is saying by looking at the person, giving them your undivided attention, nodding your head, and leaning a bit towards their direction. This way they feel heard, and if they feel understood, they are less likely to feel defensive and more open to accepting your response as your opinion, rather than as a personal attack.
  3. Reflect
    After you actively listen to what someone else has to say, you can decide how you want to engage in the conversation – again taking into account who you are speaking to and where they are coming from. You can make strength-based reflections using what you know. For example, let's say your mother is challenging the way you discipline your child. Maybe you provide your child with choices and explanations instead of spanking. Your mother may say you are spoiling your child. You can say something like, "Mom, thank you for letting me know where you stand. I know it is something that was helpful when you were disciplining us. You cared, and still care, a lot about us and want the best for us. I know you want the best for (child's name) too. He/She has been very responsive to the choices and explanations I give him/her. He/She has many friends and feels good about him/herself. Knowing he/she has a good family support system helps with that." The strength-based approach points out the underlining intentions your parent may have, which is leading them to provide you with their advice. You can agree with the advice or you can respectfully decline by acknowledging where their intentions are coming from. If the person you are speaking to does not respond positively, you can only control how you react to their response. If you stay cool, calm and collected it will help diffuse the other person’s feelings, instead of fueling them.
  4. Process
    Stressful situations, and people, are more easily managed when you have a strong relationship to fall back on. To help you stay calm, you can process what you are thinking and/or feeling before or after a stressful conversation with someone you trust. To help your kids manage emotions at big family gatherings, you can model how you would like to be treated and spoken to. And always remember, most relationships are repairable. So if a conflict does arise, you can always take a moment to calm down and reassess if the topic can be approached again later today or in the future.

If you currently have difficulties managing stressful situations and/or do not have positive buffering relationships to help you through, always remember that it’s OK to reach out to a mental health therapist for help and explore what may be triggering you. 

Stephanie De La Cruz is Clinical Director at Center for Child Counseling.