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How to talk to kids about awkward family conversations

On the plus side, spending time with extended family can be a great teaching moment to show kids how to handle weird people.
/ Source: TODAY

It’s the holidays, which means when the family goes over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house, Uncle Johnny may treat everyone to his views on impeachment and Aunt Lydia will tell her nieces they look chunky in their festive dresses.

Children might wonder why they have to spend time with people that seem mean or believe weird things. And guess what? You totally don't. Parents may decide to skip the extended family gathering. But if you decide to go, and drunk cousins or shaming grandparents are part of the deal, this is a great teaching moment to show kids how to handle all sorts of people and situations.

“If your child is getting shamed by someone in your family, they're getting bullied, and you don't let somebody bully your kids.”

“You model for your kids on how for them to be resilient and maintain relationships with people even when you disagree with them,” Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting expert, told TODAY Parents.

There might be times where it feels like leaving is the best way to deal with squabbling family members, and she encourages parents to consider what would drive them to leave.

“It is actually worth thinking about what your boundaries are,” she said.

Gilboa shares tips on how families can navigate tough holiday topics.

Shaming children

Often a family member comments on a child’s weight or appearance. Kids of all ages pick up on this and feel badly about it. Gilboa suggests that parents talk with their children prior to the event about how they want parents to handle it.

“It's a really good one to have strategies beforehand because what you might want to do is stand between your child (and the person doing the shaming) and list all the reasons your child is amazing,” she said. “But if your child doesn't want you to do that, if that makes them feel more of that more self-conscious," then it isn't helpful, she said.

"Resilience in the face of family members requires a sense of humor and good boundaries."

Gilboa recommends parents discuss possible responses to shaming, including the parent talking to the other adult, the parent and child approaching the adult, or leaving. But if parents say they will leave if Grandpa talks about how much weight Susie gained, then you have to be prepared to do it.

“You let your kids down way more if they get bullied and they are counting on you to save them and you don’t,” she said. “If your child is getting shamed by someone in your family, they're getting bullied, and you don't let somebody bully your kids.”


It can be hard when someone tells a sexist joke or uses a homophobic or racist slur during dinner. Parents who confidently call out bigotry in other situations might hesitate to do so with family. When it’s your mother-in-law, standing up might feel harder, especially if you’ve tried it before and it doesn’t work. Parents should think about explaining to their children about why they handle these situations the way they do.

“You want to be really transparent with your kids not only about why you think it's wrong but also why not at that moment you didn’t try again,” Gilboa said. “What you're showing your child is not only how to handle that person but also how you handle hearing hate and what they should or could do when they hear hate.”

If parents feel comfortable speaking up, Gilboa encourages that, too.

“Take into consideration your own expertise about your family,” she said.

Intoxicated family members

It happened again: Cousin Liam drank too much brown liquor and is stumbling and slurring. While parents might feel mortified by his loutish behavior, Gilboa says this gives them the perfect opportunity to show the unsexy side of drugs and alcohol.

“I want drunk Uncle Joey to make my kids uncomfortable with his ridiculous behavior because there are so many messages and images that kids get that drinking or smoking pot or using other drugs is attractive,” she said. “It's just lovely for them to get see the unattractive part.”

Parents shouldn’t make fun of an out-of-control relative, but instead they should explain that taking too much of a substance causes people to act very erratically and cruelly. It's even harder to address a person who becomes more fun thanks to drugs or alcohol.

Gilboa suggests parents say something such as, “She's such a great person and I wish that she didn't need to get altered.”


Parents can decide to confront family members about politics. But not talking about it is just fine, too.

“This is a chance to say 'I want to keep politics out of my holiday,'” Gilboa said.

If Aunt Jenny feels she simply must talk about reproductive rights or tariffs, parents can show their children how disagree respectfully.

“Model how you discuss it ... model empathy,” she said. "You can say, “‘I appreciate that you care about me to show me your point of view.’”

Invasive questions

Maybe your kids hate talking about school or feel anxious when the word SAT comes up. Perhaps they don’t want to talk about who they’re crushing on. Teaching children now how to handle unwanted questions will certainly help them when they are a 20-something and everyone asks when they’re going to settle down and get married.

Gilboa says one option is that parents run interference.

“Take the heat off your kid,” she explained. “'I would rather not talk about this’ is a full sentence.”

Parents can say things such as “I promised a 24-hour academic-free zone,” or “Don’t ask about the girlfriend. I made this mistake.”

“Resilience in the face of family members requires a sense of humor and good boundaries,” she said.

Forced affection

Also known as "C'mon, give Grandma/Uncle Billy a kiss," and it may seem harmless, but Gilboa urges parents to never make their children to hug, kiss or sit on a relative’s lap.

“It is super confusing to send kids the mixed message of body privacy and body safety and then force them to do something intimate with their bodies,” she said. “Nobody gets to touch your child’s body.”

A high five or a handshake are perfectly acceptable substitutes.