5 Ways to Minimize Family Holiday Stress

How to avoid heated arguments at the family gathering.

Posted Nov 10, 2010

Even the best planned Holidays can become a disaster if heated arguments erupt between guests or family members. The best way to nip potential tensions in the bud is to prevent a build-up of complaining and negativity before one occurs. The following suggestions will help minimize complaining and maximize the potential for a peaceful and pleasant holiday.

Eliminate tensions at the source. The participants most likely to create tensions over Thanksgiving are those who have already done so on previous occasions. Approach the key players ahead of time and ask them to put their squabble aside for the holiday. The goal is to achieve a temporary ceasefire not to mediate conflicts that have been around since the Nixon administration. There are 3 crucial elements to doing this successfully.

(1) Acknowledge you're asking them to do something that is emotionally challenging. (2) Sound entirely neutral, as if you are not taking sides. (3) Thank them in advance and express appreciation for their efforts. For example you might say, "There's been a lot of water under the bridge so I know it's a lot to ask, but I'd like you to put your feelings aside for just a few days, for the sake of family harmony. I know it's not easy but it would mean the world to me if you could do that."

Have reasonable expectations. Most of us associate Thanksgiving with images of close knit families in tableaus of blissful loving togetherness. Those of us who do not live in a Norman Rockwell painting can be at risk for developing unrealistic expectations. If your family's Thanksgiving is usually boring or annoying, it would not be wise to hope this year's event will provide an afternoon of heart-warming delight. To generate realistic expectations, reflect on years past, the enjoyable parts of the holiday as well as the disappointing ones and anticipate elements of both.

For example, if Uncle Lou is always grumpy, Aunt Bertha never puts food in her mouth before questioning its identity ("Is this red jelly thing the cranberry sauce?") and your cousin Andy asks stupid questions-you should expect something similar this year. Having realistic expectations will make it far less annoying when cousin Andy asks where vegan pilgrims got their tofu, and Aunt Bertha stares at her bowl and mumbles, "Is this liquid thing the soup?"

Create a thanks giving mood. Complaints are contagious. Someone kvetches about flight delays, another gripes about bad weather, a third chimes in about horrible traffic and before you know it you have a full blown whine-a-thon on your hands. One way to prevent an ‘atmosphere of complaining' is create the correct frame of mind ahead of time. Here's how:

Thankfullness and gratitude does not have to be limitted to Thanksgiving. Send participants an advance email asking them to each prepare a Thankfulness List-3 things for which they are especially grateful this year. Then ask everyone for their lists when they arrive (handing you their lists will remind them to be thankful). Once the gathering is complete, place the lists in a hat or jar, read them aloud and have family members guess who wrote each one. Families with a good sense of humor could include a fake list for fun. Items such as, "I'm thankful the website removed those pictures of me!", "I'm grateful the airline didn't do pat-downs." or "Thank goodness for penicillin!" could make for a lively afternoon.

Set ground rules. Create a list of topics you want people to avoid discussing and send it to them beforehand (in the same email in which you request their Thankfulness List). Topics should include politics, religion, or any ‘hot-button' issues that are likely to create tensions between guests. Give the list a name, such as The Thanksgiving No-No List. Here's how to use it:

If tensions rise and an argument begins to brew you can say, "I understand you both disagree but that issue is now on the No-No List." Asking people to conform to the objective No-No List rather than to your personal wishes (even though they are the same), makes your appeal sound more neutral and therefore, easier to accept. Some situations might require you to repeat the request a second time. If the arguing still persists, try saying, "Do you need me to send out an updated No-No List or can we move on to happier things?"

Invite someone less fortunate. Far from being a ‘downer', inviting an unemployed neighbor, a friend who suffered a loss or a relative dealing with a difficult illness can have a surprisingly positive impact on everyone. The presence of someone less fortunate allows us to see ourselves through that person's eyes. Doing so would give everyone a clear perspective as to how thankful they should truly feel this holiday season. Also, far less trivial and minor complaints will be voiced as a result. In short, not only would you be doing a good deed, you would be making the holiday more meaningful and memorable for all.

For more ways to reduce stress, check out my upcoming book: Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries

Read 5 more tips for minimizing family tensions this Holiday Season here.

Copyright by Guy Winch

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Copyright 2010 Guy Winch