How to Avoid Family Awkwardness & Arguments at the Holidays

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Thanksgiving might be in the rear-view mirror, and perhaps you survived one awkward dinner conversation this year—but the holidays have just gotten started. And in today’s political climate, gathering with your family can cause more drama than not. While it is common for families to have disagreements over opinions there are many steps you can take to avoid negative energy this holiday season.

With political tension at an all-time high, many are bracing themselves for some family feud at the holiday dinner table. To avoid speaking about politics is difficult, but it can be done. For starters, any time there are children around, you want to take necessary precautions to prevent any arguments from occurring.

With that said, we know that kids are quite adept at picking up on awkwardness and tension, despite what the content of the conversation may be about. It’s important to recognize that awkwardness, tension or conflict may occur at the holiday dinner table, and it’s not a bad thing for kids to see this or feel the tension. What is most important during these situations is how you manage the tension or conflict. The children will notice how the debacle is handled and it’s important for them to learn through observation.

One way to divert potential conflict or diffuse tension would be to look around and think of what you could possibly compliment people on. Don’t hesitate to point out the beautiful earrings or sweater your Aunt Louise is wearing, or how incredibly juicy the turkey was and offer your compliments to the chef. You could even look at your surroundings and compliment new home décor and inquire about it.

Essentially, point out things that will make people feel good which will naturally bring the conversation toward that direction. Additionally, it is a natural deescalating strategy.

Another way to divert tension and potentially rising conflict is by using humor. Humor is very effective at managing these types of situations in a healthy, yet lighthearted, manner. Not only does humor dissolve the tension and create the opposite emotional reaction (laughter), it can also create a natural segue into different topics and distract from the seriousness of the conversation.

Sometimes, it’s inevitable to avoid politics and controversial topics at the table, no matter what you’ve tried. If you have no way around it, stick to your own thoughts, beliefs, opinions and feelings about the topic. It’s important to steer clear of telling people what they should or should not think because this is what causes people to get defensive. You want to make sure you don’t offend any family members and make sure your kids don’t pay too much attention to the subject.

But even though you may be on your best behavior, that doesn’t mean that all of your family members will also be on theirs. When someone says something to offend you or upset you, you can have a mantra that you say to yourself in your head, such as, “Uncle Herb has always been nasty, this has nothing to do with me. He is just miserable all the time.” Reciting specific phrases in your head helps you to remind yourself that other people’s behaviors likely have nothing to with you personally. Also, you can remind yourself of prior interactions with specific individuals, gather evidence that reinforces that this is just in fact how they are and how it has nothing to do with you.

If the things you tell yourself are not effective in helping you calm down, you may want to excuse yourself and go to the bathroom. While in the bathroom, take some time out to pop in your earphones and listen to music or a calming guided meditation app. You could also reach out to your friends via text and express your feelings of frustration.

Another very effective way to get rid of anger or tension would be to engage in a physiologically deescalating relaxation strategy, like diaphragmatic breathing. This is breathing through your diaphragm rather than your chest, and it has been shown to decrease physiological distress by decreasing your heart rate, and by proxy, decreasing your emotional distress. By breathing through your diaphragm, a message is sent to your brain that you are safe and relaxed. Therefore, your brain will allow you to start calming down.

After all, it’s the season of giving and being thankful—and it is possible to celebrate without negative vibes. Always remind yourself that you are making memories and you don’t want your children to remember the negative energy and arguments whenever they reflect back upon their childhood. You want to make sure your children always have positive perceptions of time spent with their family and learned lessons as to how to manage conflict and tension in a healthy way.

Dr. Danielle Forshee
Tinybeans Voices Contributor

I am a Doctor of Psychology and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in both New Jersey and New York. For more than a decade, I have worked full-time in the fields of clinical psychology and social work while concurrently pursuing my degrees, licenses and certifications.

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