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.
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.
Holiday family survival guide: The 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.