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Family Stressing You Out? You Need Our Ultimate Survival Guide For Family Dinners

Family gatherings aren’t always the easiest – but with this holiday family survival guide, you’ll make it through every single dinner in no time.

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Holiday Family Gatherings, family at dinner tablephoto credit: shutterstock

The holiday survival guide to help you prepare for the family challenges that await

It’s time to face the facts: You may need a holiday family survival guide this year. In the 1995 film Home for the Holidays, Claudia Larson returns to her parents’ house for Thanksgiving, where she is confronted by the wacky and difficult realities of family. “When you go home, do you look around and wonder, Who are these people? and Where did I even come from?” she asks. According to Andrew Sofin, a licensed couples and family therapist and psychotherapist based in Montreal, these feelings are common. “We create stories around our families, especially in North America,” he says. “We’ve created this idea about how families are supposed to be quite homogenous entities. The idea is that your family should reflect who you are, so we take it personally if somebody [is] different.” (This is how to ensure that you have a much happier holiday than you did last year.)

While many simply try to eat the pain away, there are less-fattening coping mechanisms. “First and foremost, check your expectations at the door,” says Sofin. Before attending your next holiday dinner, write down the guest list and add two sentences next to each name: one that says what you like about the person and one that says what you dislike. “You’ll go into it with a different frame of mind,” he says.  For instance, if you have an aunt who is particularly nosy, reminding yourself that she is also warm, welcoming and sweet will help you realize that her inquisitiveness stems from the heart.

While there are no hard and fast rules to etiquette, going in with a game plan can make for a winning evening. Here, we break down five of the most common (ahem) difficult personalities you may share table space with this holiday season with expert advice on how to handle any situation with grace, dignity and compassion – or at least make it through to dessert in one piece.

3 tips that should make hosting your next holiday party a whole lot easier.

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Holiday family survival guide: The know-it-all

We’ve all heard the saying that father knows best. But whether it’s your dad, uncle, mom or pesky older sister, getting unwanted advice from a family member can trigger feelings of resentment from deep within. “Family members tend to be much more opinionated with one another than they would be with strangers because of the intimacy of family life,” says Sofin. While some advice givers may be coming from a genuine place of helpfulness, others may use this conversation technique as a way to dominate. (Are holiday parties really worth the effort?)

What’s the game plan?

Be gracious, don’t take anything too personally and remember that their intentions are good – either they really want to help or they’re simply looking for a way to communicate with you. “Just dealing with that person might be as simple as saying ‘Thank you, I know you care about my well-being, but I’m not concerned about it at this time,’” says Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert based in Florida. It isn’t necessary to take their advice to heart, but it is important to appreciate the sentiment. “Then the other person will feel good, you’re out of the conversation and you can move on to somebody else,” adds Sofin.

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Holiday family survival guideThe naughty child

Holidays mean excitement, which can take a rambunctious child’s behaviour to the next level. “A lot of the time, a kid just wants attention,” says Whitmore, adding that indulging him will often soften his behaviour. “Depending on the age of the child, try to bring him into the conversation,” she says.

What’s the game plan?

There’s a difference between a child who is behaving badly and one whose behaviour you simply disagree with. “You might not agree with a child’s fashion statement, but stay out of it,” says Sofin. “It’s not for you to decide.” On the other hand, if a child is putting himself or someone else in danger, it’s important to tell him to stop without getting emotional and to let his parents know. “Nobody wants to feel like the worst parent ever,” says Sofin. “If you just keep very calm and factual, nobody will freak out. The parents will just say ‘Hey, thank you.’” In the absence of a kids’ table, request to sit with another relative you’d like to catch up with ahead of time instead of spending an entire meal next to a troublesome tot.

Is your home causing you anxiety? Here are the signs.

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Holiday family survival guideThe nosy Nellie

Family members often know way more about us than what feels comfortable, and you may have one relative in particular who is more prying than others. When someone is gossiping or asking too many personal questions, keep in mind that she is likely genuinely interested in you and your life. “She is trying to fit in and find a way to connect with you,” says Sofin.

What’s the game plan?

“If you know that the person is nosy and don’t want to share a whole lot about your life, try to be as vague as possible,” says Whitmore. “Make a joke or turn the question around with another question, depending on what she asks.” To change the subject, Whitmore recommends preparing three topics of conversation that usually go over well during the holidays: your favourite family memory, travel and food. “Everybody can relate to food and travel, but if you really want to stimulate a lively discussion, go around the table and share your fondest or funniest family memory,” she says.

Your guests will never catch you off guard if you stock up on these holiday packaged foods. 

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Holiday family survival guideThe political nut

As political beliefs become more polarized, chances are, there will be someone at your next family event who is at the opposite end of the spectrum. While it may seem like a challenging divide, look at it as an opportunity instead.

“You don’t have to agree on everything,” says Whitmore. “In fact, I think it’s healthy to have opposing views. If everyone agreed, it wouldn’t be a stimulating discussion.”

What’s the game plan?

Before getting into a discussion, remember that your family doesn’t need to share all of your beliefs and their opinions don’t say anything negative about you. “The idea is that your family should reflect who you are, so we take it personally if somebody has a different political view,” says Sofin. “But at the end of the day, we only have power and control over ourselves.” Depending on how heated the conversation becomes, try changing the subject, tuning out your relative or heading to another room, with or without that person. “Sometimes, with this person, you might have to say, ‘You know, we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on that issue,’” says Whitmore.

Last minute shopping? Check out these gift ideas for the most difficult people on your list.

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Holiday family survival guideThe overdrinker 

At best, someone who overdoes it on the Pinot might cause embarrassment; at worst, she could be a threat to herself and others. If you’re hosting the dinner, remember that you’re responsible for your guests. “If you see that somebody is getting out of control, pull her aside privately,” says Whitmore. Keep in mind that there’s usually a motive for overindulging, and it could very well be the same social anxiety that you’re feeling. “There’s a reason why alcohol is a multi-trillion-dollar industry,” says Sofin. “It’s a depressant. It calms people down and makes them less anxious and less stressed.” (Here’s how to manage this year’s holiday stress.)

What’s the game plan?

As the host, you can minimize damage by no longer serving your unruly guest and keeping plenty of water, non-alcoholic beverages and food readily available. Also, ask yourself why someone might be drinking. “Is she worried because her ex is here?” asks Sofin. “Did she just find out that she owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes?” Engaging with your overindulging guest in a non-confrontational way may bring her troubles to the surface, which can have a calming effect. But keep in mind that it’s not your job to play family psychologist or party police officer. Simply offering to call a cab or let your guest spend the night will suffice.

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Originally Published in Best Health Canada