The holidays are regarded as a time for family togetherness and closeness. In reality, all that togetherness can create stress and conflict. There might be even more tension than normal this Thanksgiving when relatives with different political views get together for the first time after a divisive election.
Then, there are the usual issues: Perhaps you have a mother-in-law who plants herself at your home for two weeks and takes control of everything holiday-related.
Maybe she criticizes your every move — including your parenting — and constantly feeds the kids candy. Perhaps she brings them inappropriate and overdone gifts, leading them to expect or demand constant entertainment.
Some in-laws always insist you come to them, and while you really want the family to be together, packing up, traveling and living in someone else's house with your kids is really murder.
Don't stress! The good news is that there are ways to cope with these unpalatable situations.
Here are seven things you can do to help ease the family tension this holiday season:
1. Pick off-peak times to travel and celebrate.
Traveling at peak times — whether it's your journey or your in-laws' — will cause lots of tension and subsequent crankiness in everyone. You are really just setting yourself up for disaster. So, pick off-days to travel and be together, even if it means not celebrating Thanksgiving Day with them, but instead the day after. The added relaxation you feel will be more important in the long run.
2. Less is more.
Come to a consensus on the number of days you think you can all tolerate being under the same roof — and stick to it. It's better to end up wanting more time than to feel like you want to throw your guests out, or vice versa.
3. Be assertive.
Even if you are not the oldest member of your extended family, you are still an adult, and should be treated as such. If something is going on that you really are uncomfortable with (like your mother-in-law wants to spank your child and that's unacceptable to you), then remain firm in your rules. Kids may need the structure of their usual schedules — especially when traveling. So despite what the in-laws say ... stick to your rules.
4. Pick your battles.
When it comes to health, safety and basic family values, you really need to hold your ground. However, other family relationships really are important, so try to compromise on some matters. Let your relatives do some things their way to show them you respect them, too.
5. Work out disagreements ahead of time.
If trouble is brewing before the holiday, try to resolve the problem over the phone before the get-together to avoid a blowup for all to see.
6. Prepare some cool one-liners.
You know your sister is coming and she's going to say, "Gee you look like you gained a little weight this year." Come up with some lines that you can have that don't strike back — are not attacking — but where you set a limit. "You know what? I don't really want to talk about that right now, but let's set the table."
7. Recognize the value in all your family relationships.
Try to be attentive to all your family relationships in between holidays, so that hurt and resentment don't build up in between visits. That way, holiday gatherings will not be burdened with excessive expectations, and everyone can truly relax.
This story was originally published in 2008.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of medicine and a psychoanalyst with the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.. For more information, visit her website, drgailsaltz.com.