It’s the most wonderful time of the year… if you get along with your extended family.
The reality for most, though? There’s a lot of room for conflict during the hectic holiday months: Stress levels reach a fever pitch. Long-simmering familial issues can rise to the surface. And there’s always that one relative who thinks it’s appropriate to ask intrusive questions about your personal life over Christmas dinner.
We’re here to help. Below, family therapists share the most common issues relatives face during the holidays and how to deal with each. (Having a tall glass of spiked eggnog in your hand might help, too.)
Issue No. 1: Relatives who rehash old arguments or bring up past mistakes.
Let bygones be bygones should be your motto this time of year. Unfortunately, there’s something about families coming together around the holidays that seems to make people eager to bring up old hurts, arguments and mistakes, said Anna Poss, a therapist in Chicago, Illinois.
Oftentimes, the issues sting: “Mom told me me so much about her childhood when she was in hospice care,” an uncle might say. “It’s a shame that more of you weren’t there for her during those last few days.”
The solution: Acknowledge the old hurt in a neutral way― “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “it is unfortunate” for instance ― but then Poss recommends redirecting the conversation.
“Simply bring up a less stressful, more recent topic,” she explained. “If they continue to try to hijack the conversation into negative waters, you can say calmly and directly that you are not interested in that conversation and would rather discuss something else.”
Issue No. 2: Disagreements over how the kids in the family should behave or be disciplined.
Your parenting and discipline style may vary greatly from your relatives’ style and expectations. “How can you let your son talk so disrespectfully to you,” your great aunt might say when your kid speaks his mind in a way you find fine. “You’re his mother!”
The solution: Your parenting style is, of course, no one else’s business. But there’s often generational divides on how kids should behave. If the comments irk you, gracefully remove yourself from the situation, or suggest to your relative that the two of you simply have different disciplinary styles, said Fran Walfish, a family and psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California, and author of “The Self-Aware Parent.”
If you’re the great aunt in this situation, “remind yourself that it’s not your responsibility to correct the kids in the way they speak to their mother, it’s hers,” Walfish said.
Issue No. 3: Relatives who put pressures on others about the future.
Family members, especially older ones, usually have hopes for the next steps you take. It’s understandable ― they’re invested in your life! Oftentimes, these hopes get brought up at holiday gatherings, which isn’t an ideal setting for these loaded, sensitive conversations: “Still single? Do you think you’ll ever get married?” they might say. Or “You’ve been together a few years now, when are you going to have a baby?” Maybe it’s a comment about work: “Are you still at that same job? Have you thought about looking elsewhere?”
While usually well-meaning, the questions come off as intrusive ― and holiday gatherings are neither the time or place for these kinds of conversations, said Mahlet Endale, a licensed psychologist based in Atlanta, Georgia.
Plus, it’s hard to know the backstory, especially if you’re not in regular contact with your relatives: What if the person you’re asking is in a toxic relationship or just got dumped? What if they had a miscarriage recently? What if they want to move on from their job and become a lawyer, but can’t seem to pass the LSAT?
The solution: If you’re the inquiring mind in this situation, ask your relative if they’re interested in talking about the subject, Endale said. If they say yes, pull them aside (no one else need to hear this) and ask questions to understand where they stand on the topic. Then ― and only then ― you can ask for permission to share your thoughts.
“Be aware that someone may say no to any of these questions,” she said. “If that’s the case, invite a conversation to understand why it’s a no and be ready to back off if they’re not ready to discuss this. The more respect you show for what the person needs, the more you show yourself to be a thoughtful and caring.”
If you’re the one being interrogated or receiving unsolicited advice, try to pivot the conversation: Make a joke, or tell your relative you’d rather talk about this later, Endale said. Or you can very clearly state you don’t want to talk about it.
“In most healthy family dynamics, one of these will work in redirecting uncomfortable topics,” she said. “If you know there is a topic you’ve repeatedly been pressured about and you know that it will continue at the holidays despite your request for it to stop, it’s OK for you to think about limiting your family time.”
Issue No. 4: Conflict over whose family you’ll visit in a new relationship
Even couples at the height of the honeymoon phase fall prey to arguments about where they’ll spend the holidays. (This is especially if there’s a big geographic distance between the families.)
It’s a complicated issue that can feel like a game of tug of war, Endale said. On the one hand, the pressure can come from the in-laws. But it also might be an internal conflict between the couple: After years of tradition, it can be hard to spend that first holiday away from your family.
The solution: Set clear manageable expectations early in your relationship about what’s important to you when it comes to all the holidays.
“Sit down with your significant other and have a conversation about what holidays mean to both sides of the family and to each of you,” Endale said. “What family rituals and traditions do you want to see in your partnership? How much travel is realistic in terms of time and finances?”
Once you’ve hashed that out, use the responses to outline a realistic game plan for how you’ll spend the next few holiday seasons.
Issue No. 5: Arguments or anxiety over how much to spend on gifts
Family budgets vary and that’s never more clear than during the holidays. While buying big-ticket gifts for the whole family might be no big deal for a more well-off family member, for others, straying from their typical budgets with excessive holiday spending is a huge struggle that could easily result in debt.
The solution: Touch base with the adults in the family prior to the holidays, said Becky Stuempfig, a marriage and family therapist in Encinitas, California. This can be a short 20 minute check-in conversation that the family has before they begin their shopping or even an email or group text.
“When you have this talk, bring up ideas for gifts and a maximum spending limit for each person on the list,” Stuempfig said. “I also recommend that families try to avoid last minute shopping. It’s not always possible, but usually families get into the most financial trouble when they make last minute, impulsive buys at the end of the holiday season.”
This planning will pay off in the long run: When you discuss expectations around gifts and really try to be intentional about your spending, it sets the gift-giving tone for years to come, Stuempfig said.
Issue No. 6: Arguments or upset feelings over rehashing embarrassing childhood stories.
Avoid sharing embarrassing stories from someone’s childhood or teen years, especially if they’ve brought a new partner to the holidays. You might want to regale this new person with a story about how your cousin wrote an angsty, emo poem for a crush that wanted nothing to do with him, but your cousin probably doesn’t appreciate the roasting, said Becky Whetstone, a marriage and family therapist in Texas and Little Rock, Arkansas.
The solution: Avoid telling stories about other family members when the theme is not loving, kind or goodnatured, especially when they’ve brought around someone new, Whetstone said.
“Throwing a family member under the story-telling bus is verbal and emotional abuse, and a form of bullying,” she said. “If you’re not sure if you should bring something up, ask your family member’s permission first, in private, and if they say no, don’t do it.”
Issue No. 7: Parents who want to run their adult children lives when they’re back in town.
Blame it on helicopter parenting or just poorly established boundaries, but many parents and grown adult children unknowingly default to their former roles when they’re under one roof for the holidays, said Dea Dean, a marriage and family therapist in Ridgeland, Mississippi.
“Maybe a parent insists that their grown kid stay in town for an extended amount of time, or they make demands about how their twenty-something’s time will be spent once there,” she said. “Other times, a parent might offer unsolicited advice or comment about their child’s appearance, job, relationships or beliefs.”
The solution: Nip this issue in the bud before you head back home to your parents, Dean said.
“A healthy way to address these potential arguments is for both parents and young adult children to communicate about expectations for the holiday before they arrive,” she said. “Young adults can let parents know respectfully and clearly what they’re willing to do and for how long and what they’re willing or unwilling to talk about.”
Dean offed an example. “Maybe you say, ‘In the past we’ve often argued when discussing my career path when I come back home. I appreciate your suggestions and care about what you have to say, but at the same time, I’d like for you to trust me to be resourceful and allow me to come to my own conclusions about my next steps.’”
As for the parents overreaching in this situation, Dean suggests taking a new approach from years past: “You’ll be a lot less likely to face resistance if you frame your wants as ‘desires’ rather than ‘demands,’” she said.