How to Deal With Your Family Over the Holidays

For many people, holidays are incredibly stressful. Even leaving aside issues related to family history and dynamics, when people who happen to be related but don’t have much in common get together there can be multiple points of contention, including food, politics, and religion.

Here are some tips for coping.

1) Educate Yourself (or Refresh Your Education) in Effective Communication. My favorite communications primer is actually a classic parenting book, “How to Talk so Kids Listen and Listen so Kids Talk,” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. It’s a quick read with fun cartoons, and I recommend it to everyone regardless of whether they have kids. You can use its tips and techniques for getting along with, and resolving conflicts with, everyone, including adult family members, friends, and coworkers.

This New York Times article on resolving family conflict is also excellent. It turns out that there’s a whole host of simple things you can do to defuse conflict, like sitting down or stepping outside.

Most communications primers will tell you that it’s your job to state your needs. That’s absolutely true; and the right way to do it is with “I statements”, as in: “When you make jokes about my politics, it really hurts my feelings.” Unlike “you statements,” especially of the “You’re such a mean jerk!” variety, “I statements” tend to defuse tension and are not susceptible to nitpicking or argumentation. 

2) Take Care of Your Own Needs. Remember: it’s your holiday, too. Just because others expect you to spend a lot of time with them, and participate in events you would rather avoid, doesn’t mean you’re obligated to do so, even if you’ve done so in the past.

Figure out which aspects of the holiday experience are hardest for you, and make a plan to ease them or avoid them entirely. Maybe you only stay with your family for two or three days, instead of a whole week. Or maybe you skip the big meal. Or maybe you skip the whole holiday, and visit another time. (Or not at all?) It’s also appropriate to ask people to not discuss topics that make you uncomfortable or that inevitably lead to a fight.

These steps may seem unthinkable, especially if your family is big on tradition, but lots of people (and not just activists) take them and say they help a lot. And, perhaps after some initial shock, your family will get used to them.

By the way, if someone labels you “sensitive” or “high maintenance” for working to have your needs met, ignore them. It’s more a reflection of their mindset than your own; and sensitivity, especially to the situation and needs of the marginalized, is a good and admirable thing.

3) Be realistic in your expectations. In particular, don’t try to convert the “unconvertible.” Many activists and others struggle mightily to convince their families to join their cause, for instance, and only succeed in starting a fight. But guess what? No activism guide I’ve ever read says that the people who happen to be related to you are going to be extra-persuadable. In fact, the opposite appears to be true—which is why, unlike sports teams, many activists, artists, and other independent thinkers often do better away from home.

I was discussing this topic with a friend who is a Christian, and he commented, “Even Jesus had to leave home to preach!” And guess what? He’s right. Here’s the text, from Matthew 13:

And when he was come into his own country, he taught them in their synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And his brethren, James, and Joseph, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things? And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, a prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house. And he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief.

This passage cracks me up. It also helps me to feel better about my own family’s occasional imperviousness to some of my own wisdom. Hopefully, it will do the same for you.

4) If You’re Going to Do Activism at Home, Do Smart Activism. Very few people, whether they’re related to you or not, respond positively to an unsolicited lecture. Instead of barraging people with information, therefore, look for authentic opportunities to discuss issues; and, when you find them, do so succinctly and in a way that invites more discussion if the other person wants it.

Remember that everyone’s consciousness is raised one step at a time. When giving advice, therefore, instead of making global suggestions, focus on that next step.

Here’s how it might work for a vegan: If someone brings up health issues, for instance, you might mention how a vegan diet can help, and offer to send more information or recipes. (Dr. Greger’s Nutritionfacts.org site is the indispensable resource for health-related information.) If the discussion turns to sports, you can mention some vegan athletes. Or, if your relative is into film or photography you can mention some vegan examples of that art. Don’t hijack conversations, however; the goal is never to dominate the other person, but to work with him or her to create common ground.

Also, do your best to model joyful activism. Don’t feel obligated to exude joy if you feel under attack and are struggling just to stay cool, however. Sometimes, victory is just getting through a difficult event with your dignity intact.

5) Don’t Forget Humor.  Humor is great for revealing the essential silliness or bad faith of arguments, but I do consider it a bit of a “pro” tactic, since it can easily morph into hostility or condescension. So only use it if you’re feeling fully up to some light banter.

However, don’t avoid the kinds of humor we all use for coping! (The kind you share only with yourself or a trusted ally.) When the going gets rough, for example, I often find that it helps to recall the late comedian Richard Pryor’s famous line that, “Having a family is like getting a life sentence for a crime you never committed.”

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