Family Harmony for the Holidays

Three experts give tips to preserve the peace and avert social warfare during holiday gatherings.

By Emily Delzell | Updated Dec. 14. 2021

Ever left a family holiday gathering churning with tension and swearing that, next year, you’re going somewhere far, far away? These events sometimes ratchet up anxiety and stress, which are not only unpleasant but also can undermine your health and well-being. Take heart. Here, three experts offer different approaches to help you keep the peace and ward off stress.

The Mediator

Laurie Puhn, a New York City-based family mediator and author of Fight Less, Love More: 5-Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship Without Blowing Up or Giving In (Rodale, 2010)

Step 1: “Anticipate hot topics. Is it politics? Is it religion? Is it how somebody’s son took a year off from college and shouldn’t have?” she says.

Step 2: “Making this list prepares you for when these topics come up, which gives you the emotional ability to detach, or even have a sense of humor about them,” she explains.

Step 3: Have some phrases ready in case difficult moments arise. Try, “Thank you for your opinion, I hadn’t thought of it that way.” Or if you’re pressed, “I know this issue is important to you and you want to talk about it, but I’m just not in the mood today.”

Keep it courteous, because disrespect turns disagreements into heated arguments, says Puhn. “At the end of the day, you want to leave feeling proud of yourself,” she says.

The Etiquette Keeper

Daniel Post Senning, etiquette expert and co-host of the Emily Post Institute’s Awesome Etiquette podcast

Senning advises preparing mentally. “Thinking about the purpose of these events and reminding yourself they involve long-term relationships that ultimately matter a great deal in our lives helps you realize it’s worth the investment of bringing along your best self,” he says.

That means being gracious, whether you’re the host or guest, and participating actively to prevent altercations from bubbling up in the first place.

“If you’re the host, it’s the quality of your interactions people will remember most. Greet, introduce and periodically check in with guests to make sure they’re comfortable,” he says. “For guests, it’s not enough to drag your carcass there and dive into a cell phone. Offer to help your host and have some fun, interesting and noncontroversial topics to discuss — and then make an effort to engage.”

The Therapist

Samuel T. Gladding, PhD, professor in the department of counseling at Wake Forest University, North Carolina

He advises keeping thoughts under control, even if someone behaves badly.

“You have a choice in how you think and feel. Instead of heading toward stress or anger, your thoughts could be of pity or sadness, for example,” he says. “Remember, these encounters are time-limited and in most cases not tragic.”

If you do find yourself on potentially volatile ground, try using “reflecting” language, such as, “I hear you saying you don’t like X,” says Gladding. “Don’t get sucked into agreeing or disagreeing.”

Finally, limit time with toxic people. “Excuse yourself to go to the bathroom, take a walk or get a drink or food,” he says.

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