Mind & Body

10 Ways to Avoid Conflict at Family Meals

The holidays often involve reuniting with family, and for many people, that can be bittersweet — or an outright source of stress. Sitting down to a holiday meal with people connected by blood who may not share your political views, approve of your life choices, or even consider you an adult worthy of their respect can be harrowing. Luckily, many people share this experience, which means experts have had plenty of chances to weigh in on the best way to deal with it. Here are 10 ways to keep the peace during the holidays.

1. Give Everyone a Job

Family conflicts can arise from a wide variety of sources, not all of which are readily apparent. A mother-in-law's criticism of a dish might stem from a desire to have control, a brother's snippy words might come from feeling ignored, and a teenager's rolling eyes might come from sheer boredom. A lot of this can be solved by giving people a job to do. Having a dish to bring or a task to complete not only makes everyone feel included, but it also gives everyone else an occasion to thank and appreciate each other. At the very least, it will keep potential troublemakers busy with other things.

2. Go Easy on the Alcohol

When tempers are hot, alcohol can be the fuel that starts the fire. As Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. writes for PsychCentral, "Nowhere is it written that there shall be alcohol whenever a family gets together." If past dinners have been ruined by excessive drinking, let everyone know that you're having a booze-free holiday this year. Serve sparkling cider and non-alcoholic punch instead. If you feel the holidays just wouldn't be the same without a good glass of wine, do the math and buy just enough for everyone to have no more than two glasses.

3. Avoid Technology

According to Harvard University's Family Dinner Project, using technology at the table is a growing source of family tension — often because parents set technology rules for their kids that they don't follow themselves. No matter how old you are, staring at a screen while you're in the middle of a conversation can make others feel ignored and disrespected, and that can lead to hurt feelings and lost tempers. Selfies and family photos are great during the holidays, but keep them confined to a set period of time — then put the phone down and your eyes up.

4. Shake Things Up

One of the most difficult parts of reuniting with family is navigating the long-practiced patterns in your interactions. When your family relationship still contains echoes of decades-old fights, it can be hard to live in the moment and see people the way they are now. To avoid falling in those deeply worn grooves, do something new, whether that's inviting new people to dinner or starting a new tradition.

Jezebel's Anna North writes that her family did just that: "... a couple of years ago my family started buying Christmas crackers, and now we spend a significant portion of Christmas dinner discussing the weird trilingual jokes ('Why did the tomato turn red? ¡Un periódico!') and crappy toys (plastic basketball hoops sized for mice). This is time we can't spend arguing about inflammatory stuff like politics or whether science is real."

5. Find Something for the Kids

Rambunctious little ones can be an added source of stress during an already stressful day. Tip #1 — give everyone a job — still applies to children, and as clinical psychologist Dr. Anne K. Fishel, a co-founder of Harvard's Family Dinner Project, writes, "The trick is figuring out which tasks are developmentally right for your child. Even young children can be asked to sprinkle a seasoning, stir a stew, or rinse vegetables. Elementary-aged kids can set and clear the table, pour the drinks and be involved in some food preparation." If there are already too many cooks in the kitchen, consider finding a task for them elsewhere in the house.

After dinner, make sure there's an activity that will keep them occupied. Have craft supplies set out, or volunteer (or pay!) a teen to play games with your youngest dinner guests.

6. Take Charge of Seating

If you're hosting the holiday meal, this can be one of the easiest ways to keep dinner civil. Make a seating plan and place high-conflict family members far away from each other (and the ones they like close by). Hartwell-Walker suggests this particularly brilliant solution: "Have some of the younger kids make place cards and assign seats. Folks are less likely to switch places when admiring kids' handiwork."

7. Keep Some Topics Off the Table

Avoiding religion and politics in polite company may be a rule from days gone by, but it still might be the easiest way to get through the holidays with the blood vessels in your head intact. If you can, agree ahead of time to stay away from hot-button issues. If you can't, politely steer the conversation elsewhere. To Jezebel, Dr. Cheryl Dellasega, author of "Forced to Be Family: A Guide for Living with Sinister Sisters, Drama Mamas, and Infuriating In-Laws," suggests this wording: "You know, we're never going to agree on this — we each have our own opinion, it's the holidays, and it's really not a time when we got together to discuss politics. We got together to be thankful for what we have or to spend a nice meal together, so let's focus on that instead." If that doesn't work, Dellasega says, let them continue but stop responding. Instead, start a conversation with the rest of the group.

But religion and politics aren't the only hot-button issues out there. Asking dinner guests about private or stress-inducing life milestones, such as "When are you two having kids?" or "When are you going to finish school?" is generally considered impolite, and can sour an otherwise pleasant evening. If they want to tell you, they will!

8. Don't Try to Fix Anyone

Gerontologist Karl Pillemer, professor of human development at Cornell University, has surveyed approximately 2,000 older people about their advice on keeping family time harmonious. An article in Social Work Today summarizes one important piece of that advice: Holidays are not the time for fixing problems.

"Thanksgiving is not the time to exhort your child to get out of a relationship or get into one, to get a new job or stay in the old one, or to get his or her life on track. And the same holds true in the other direction: This is not the time for adult offspring to push the folks to sell the house or to start exercising. Let the holiday also be a break, the elders say, from trying to change one another."

9. Assume the Best

A 2009 study from Waterloo University found that one of the best ways to make a good impression is to assume people will like you. By the same token, a great way to have a happy holiday is to assume it will be happy — and the same goes with your assumptions about interactions with others. One 81-year-old respondent to Pillemer's surveys had this advice: "Rather than assume the worst, it's more helpful to assume that [critical family members] are saying things to you because they want to help ... Try to realize that their intentions are good and sometimes people, especially as they get older, can't change the way they deal with others in their life."

10. Remind Yourself Why You're There

As much as you might think you're powerless to avoid seeing unpleasant family members, you don't have to see them. You're there for a reason: because you want to spend time with the people you love. Through it all, remind yourself that you all care about each other. Then do your best to demonstrate it.

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For a guide to family conflict, check out "Forced to Be Family: A Guide for Living with Sinister Sisters, Drama Mamas, and Infuriating In-Laws" by Cheryl Dellasega. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer November 19, 2018

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