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How to get along with family: Psychiatrist shares 5 tips for the holidays

Are you dreading the holidays because what is supposed to be a blissful family reunion seems to always turn into simmering tension? Us too.
/ Source: TODAY

The holidays mean getting together with loved ones and family — a potentially explosive combination. On TODAY, contributor and psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz was invited to offer some advice to help you enjoy the festivities, even with family members who just don’t get along.

Are you dreading the holidays because what is supposed to be a blissful family reunion seems to always turn into simmering tension? Many of us look forward to the holidays — and also worry about who might blow up at the dinner table. Needless to say, it can really ruin your fun.

Very often family members get together who may not have seen each other or spoken in quite some time. Sometimes, in order to please both sides of the family, you invite relatives who you may not want in your home. Old hurts and conflicts which have never been resolved are still there, just waiting to be triggered again.

A common misconception is that the holiday season is the time to work it all out. A parent may feel this is their chance to give their children advice; a sister may feel this is her chance to tell her siblings what she really thinks.

Resolving deep conflict takes time and the holiday table is not a great place to start. You need time to discuss such issues as sibling rivalry, separation from parents, making different choices from your family, your wishes for family acceptance and fear of humiliation and failure.

It is very difficult to step out of your old role in the family into a new one (Johnny was always the lazy one, Suzy is the bossy, controlling sister/daughter, etc.).

When you are with the family, you may find yourself struggling to be who you want to be, and feeling angry at the old dynamics.

Unrealistic expectations are another source of holiday misery. The belief that “normal” families are having an intimate, loving and fun holiday causes you to try to have everything be “just so” — and to feel very disappointed and angry when it isn’t.

Here are some things you can do to keep the peace this holiday season:

1. Create structure.

Too much time just hanging around with everyone leads to boredom, irritation and the ability to get annoyed with each other over small things. Interestingly, it's the small things that usually start a fight. If you leave plans for the last minute (“Which show should we watch? What drinks shall we have? What should the kids do before the meal?”), that’s when disagreements and fights often occur.

If you plan out your time (“First we'll all have a snack, then a walk to the park where we can play Frisbee, then a game of Scrabble and then the meal…”), there will be less opportunity for trouble. It’s also important to sit people together who get along and keep those away from each other who don’t.

2. Limit alcohol.

Alcohol relaxes you, and if there's a lot of alcohol, there's a much greater likelihood that a little annoyance will turn into a knock-down, drag-out fight.

3. Troubleshoot issues before they happen.

Very often there is one troublemaker in the family. Try to pre-empt them by discussing the situation with other family members. If you know Uncle Tom is going to criticize his nieces, then talk to others who can jump in to deflect and lighten the moment and support the nieces so that it won’t spiral.

4. Avoid heavy topics.

This is that rare time when making light talk is better. The time for heavy communication is the rest of the year. The holidays are a time to enjoy everyone, and if the holidays are successful, you can discuss difficult topics later in the year.

5. Shorter is better.

Too much togetherness will lead to arguments and tension. It’s better to leave everyone wanting for more. Don’t let your Aunt Edna stay for two weeks; a long weekend is better.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her new book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was recently published by Riverhead Books. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this story should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2004 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.