Life

6 Strategies For Avoiding Family Drama

Eva Grant
5 min read
December 22, 2017
6 Strategies For Avoiding Family Drama

Ah, the holidays. The time of year when you head back to your family home, emotionally regress a lil’ bit, see your parents’ geriatric dog, field inappropriate questions about your womb, bump into people you really don’t want to see, and plant yourself in front of the fireplace with a good book. Cozy. Mostly pleasant.

That is, until Uncle Whathisface opens his mouth and starts talking about the “witch hunt” that’s going on regarding women speaking up about sexual harassment.

Commence the holiday get-together chaos, brought to you courtesy of day drinking and our current bonkers political landscape.

It’s all a bit overwhelming to be reunited with people you may have purposefully moved very far away from. And an extended meal during which the wine flows freely is not always conducive to feelings of gratitude and magnanimity when certain family members with certain opinions pipe up.

Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered. Here are some things you can do that will make these unpleasant encounters a little more bearable.

Practice “I” statements

We’ll start with a well-known one. The idea behind “I” statements is that you simply communicate how you feel, without putting blame on someone else.

“These statements center us on our experiences, feelings, and responses,” says Paulette Janus, behavioral health specialist and founder of Janus Behavioral Health Services.

On the other hand, she points out, “‘You’ statements can provoke a defensive response, as it focuses the interaction on the behavior of others. Observe the difference between ‘Mom, you always ask about when I am going to get married. Stop,’ versus, “Mom, I’m happy being single right now. Let’s focus on enjoying our time together.’”

And although “I” statements aren’t a comprehensive solution, when you start using them in emotionally tense situations, you’re more likely to open the door to effective conflict resolution.

Give this a whirl: “I feel uncomfortable when people joke about _______. It would be nice if we turned the conversation back to what’s going on with everyone’s work projects.”

Identify defense mechanisms—both your own and those of your family members

This is helpful for both protecting you from harmful family interactions and maintaining your own level head at the dinner table. Common defense mechanisms you might find in yourself or others around the holidays include passive aggression, regression (when you become more child-like when you’re at home), projection (when the accuser is attributing their own issues to others), and introjection (when you’re internalizing other’s comments).

“You know what pushes your buttons, so identify strategies beforehand so you can manage when this happens,” says Janus. “And avoid pushing your family members’ buttons. You know what they are, so make the decision to not pick that battle.”

Try: Making a list of your own defense mechanisms before you arrive at your destination; it can help put everything into context and keep you from being reactive.

Ask for—and accept—help

If you ever find your family confrontations happening over that massive pile of dishes (and that fact that it’s always falling to the women in the family), or if you are totally overwhelmed by the length of your holiday “to do” list, this is a really important thing to keep in mind:

It’s OK to ask for help.

The holidays shouldn’t have to rest on your shoulders. Asking for and accepting help can bring a lot of conflicts down a notch. Don’t bottle it up and go into martyr mode. It’s a day of gratitude, after all.

Try: Asking your fellow diners to help with dishes. Form an assembly line and turn on some music. You aren’t admitting defeat, you’re admitting humanity.

Bring in co-conspirators and buffers

Two concrete ways to deescalate conflict involve bringing a friend or family member in to be on your side. Do you have a friend who has nowhere to be during the holidays? Invite them to your place! Introducing them to your family can help create a buffer.

If none of your friends are around, you probably at least have one family member who also feels the tension that you are trying to avoid. Reach out to them before the big day and create a little plan.

Try: Inviting a friend over who hasn’t been to your holiday dinner before. Or, ask your siblings or cousins to join forces with you and prepare for the usual onslaught together, coming up with concrete tasks, like giving that difficult relative a dish to cook.

You don’t necessarily need to turn *all the way up*

OK, we know this might be hard to hear. But your family gathering doesn’t have to involve alcohol if it’s proven to be a provocative element in the past. Besides, it’s probably been a while since you’ve had some Martinelli’s sparkling cider, and that shit is delicious.

If your family really can’t part with the champagne (same, tbh), try and be aware of the general consumption vibe. Be mindful of what you’re serving. Ultimately, it’s likely that the only thing you’ll be able to control is how much youdrink, and that’s OK.

Try: Being more aware of how much you drink and how much you serve. Families are difficult enough when everyone’s sober.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness isn’t just for clearing you headspace before you head into work; it’s applicable in pretty much every situation—even at the family dinner table. This list is full of actionable mindfulness techniques that you can integrate throughout the holiday period.

“It is natural to focus on negatives,” says Janus. “It can take more effort to recognize positives—particularly in negative situations. Mindfulness is directing the mind to focus on certain things. Bringing your attention to positive things, even if only how fantastic the cranberries taste, can prevent frustrations from escalating.”

Try: “Going for a walk and getting some fresh air,” says Janus. “You can use the excuse of wanting to work up an appetite or wanting to help all that food digest.”

“Also, establish boundaries and structure, such as setting how long you will stay or if overnight. And if you need to create some space and distance, consider staying in a hotel.”

*Update Mon., Dec. 18 6:20 p.m. PT: This story originally published on Nov. 21, 2017, and has been updated for timeliness.