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Turkey With a Big Side Dish of Family! 3 Tips to Help You Keep Your Sanity

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Ah the holidays! A magical, fun time or a time where everyone loses their minds? Maybe it is both but it most certainly is an opportunity to practice relationship skills. At this most festive time of the year I would like to offer some tips for how to keep family stress to a minimum so you can fully enjoy your cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

#1 Don’t try to solve unsolvable problems.

Relationship expert John Gottman says that every couple has solvable and unsolvable problems. Holidays have a way of highlighting a families’ unsolvable problems. The key to dealing with unsolvable problems is to stop trying to fix them! If your husband doesn’t like your mother because she chatters on with too many details about dearly departed loved ones then that is not going to be magically different this year. But what can be different is your reaction. Stop trying to convince your husband that your mother means well and is really a wonderful person. He probably knows that but the man is trying to vent so let him vent. Try saying “I’m sorry I know that annoys you but I really appreciate you being willing to spend Thanksgiving with her anyway”. If your children complain that they don’t like to wear fancy clothes that itch and sit at the table while adults talk don’t try to convince them out of their feelings. You could say “I know those clothes are not the most comfortable and after dinner we can switch to T-shirts and sweat pants. Thanks for being a good sport today.” These examples haven’t solved the problem but if you handle the complaining more like this you may get a more cooperative loved one. Sometimes people just want to be acknowledged.

#2 Take a time out if you need to.

We don’t need to spend every minute of the holidays with family. Sometimes it can be helpful to have a planned time to step away from the festivities. If your brother-in-law likes to scream during the football game after dinner maybe you and your spouse and kids could take a walk. Maybe you could pack a fun game to lighten the mood and provide some diversion. The other time it is good to have a time out strategy is if you worry about conflict escalating. If your dad likes to be confrontational about politics and he and your sister always get too heated then plan for that this year. Maybe that is a fine time to toss the football outside. It helps to review the times in the past when things have gone sour and try to anticipate them and to make a different plan this year. You can’t control how other people behave but you can always figure out how you are going to behave. If things start getting heated it can be good to take a time out and come back when you have had a chance to cool yourself down.

#3 Remember that even if you are back in your parent’s home you are an adult now and things can be different

Some families are much better at adapting and shifting the hierarchy than others. Ideally when children become adults there should be much less of parents at the top of the authority hierarchy and instead people acting more like equals. This might look like the adults respecting each other and taking into account input from all rather than parents acting like authority figures of small children. Alas some people really struggle with this. If you have parents who haven’t fully embraced your status as an independent, competent adult and who want to dictate what you will do and when this can be a real challenge to holiday happiness. But take heart, the good news is you are a capable independent adult who can handle this minefield. The trick is remembering what we discussed earlier-you can’t change someone else but you can change yourself. Don’t fall into the kid role but act like an equal. So if your mom tries to tell you when you and your family should arrive and leave and what you are going to do while you are there don’t feel like there has to be a battle to do what you want. It is ok to acknowledge what she would like but then say “But this is what is going to work for us Mom”. These moments will go better if you can give your parents time to wrap their minds around what changes you have decided to make. The week of Thanksgiving is not the time to say “We are going to stay at a hotel this year because sharing your one bathroom house with 20 extended relations doesn’t work for us.” Some people wait until the last minute to announce changes because they are fearing the backlash but trust me the backlash is much worse if people haven’t had time to adjust. A way to handle the upset from mom is acknowledge her feelings and reassert your plans. “I know that is a change and you aren’t happy about it mom but that is what is going to work for us” goes better than getting defensive and shutting her down because you feel guilty.

So the moral of this story seems to be take care of yourself-know what you need and don’t be afraid to express this to others. And then let other people have their feelings and listen to them with empathy rather than just trying to shut them down. And maybe this will be the best Thanksgiving ever! Or at least a more peaceful one.

Wishing you all a joyful and relaxing Thanksgiving!

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