Family Visiting? How to Keep the Peace

The holidays can be a challenge when it comes to having family members get along. Here's how to keep the calm—and your sanity.

By Andrea Atkins

The turkey roasts. The table oozes style and charm. The house smells amazing as the aroma of your delicious meal wafts through the air. It all looks like a Norman Rockwell painting. Too bad you’re worrying about how your cousin and sister will get along. Or whether your daughter is going to tick off your husband. Or whether there will be some other outburst that essentially “ruins” Thanksgiving.

“Thanksgiving brings about a lot of expectations,” says Laurie Puhn, a Harvard lawyer, mediator and author of Fight Less, Love More: 5-Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship without Blowing Up or Giving In. “It’s the universal American holiday and the only one that every family celebrates. Therefore people expect it to be perfect.

And it almost never is. People have unrealistic hopes about that perfection, says Leonard Felder, Ph.D., author of Here I am: How To Use Jewish Spiritual Wisdom to Become More Present, Centered, and Available for Life. “And they have some long-standing resentments against one or more of the participants. So when a particular relative acts up once again, the resentments and disappointments get stirred up more than ever.”

So how do you keep the peace at Thanksgiving? A little pre-planning and expectation adjustment can go a long way.

Peace-Keeping Tactic: Be Thankful 
That’s what the holiday’s all about, right? But you may want to direct your thankfulness at the problem. When Aunt Sally points out that she would never make stuffing the way that you have, says Felder, “Take a deep breath and say silently to yourself, ‘I am so thankful that I don’t have to spend 365 days a year around this toxic individual. I am so fortunate that I am able to breathe and watch this person from a distance.’”

Peace-Keeping Tactic: Count Your Blessings
Spend 50 percent less time focusing on the difficult family member and 50 percent more on the people there who you do love. “Thanksgiving is a chance to catch up with a beloved family member that you enjoy talking with or the opportunity to spend 15 wonderful minutes with a loveable niece, nephew, grandchild, or wise aging family member you don’t get to see often enough,” Felder says.

Peace-Keeping Tactic: Sow Good Will
When a relative offers you an opinion you didn’t ask for or advice you haven’t sought, particularly on something that might be a touchy subject for you, resist the urge to proffer a snappy rejoinder. Instead, says Puhn, simply say, “Thank you for your opinion. I’ll think about that.” It defuses the tension, lets the person know he’s been heard, and gets you off gracefully. “Blowing off their advice encourages repetition,” says Puhn. “The art here is to respect the opinion without agreeing. ‘I’ll think about that.’  ‘I understand what you’re saying.’”

Peace-Keeping Tactic: Seek And Ye Shall Receive 
If there’s a relative who never lifts a finger to help, don’t fume at her for being a guest in your house, says Puhn. Give her a job to do. “I wouldn’t ask her to baste the turkey, but you might ask her to put side dishes into the fancy bowls or to put out or fill the water glasses,” she says. If you fear singling her out, then make a general statement: “’My husband and I are going to serve. When the meal is over, I’d like everyone to bring his or her things to the kitchen and everyone can take a five-minute shift cleaning.’ You might even make light of it: ‘The family that cleans together stays together,’” Puhn says, “It’s a fair request.”

Peace-Keeping Tactic: Create Your Own Cornucopia of Peacefulness 
You can be the annoying one, too. Avoid prickling others by thinking ahead about potential conversational traps. To your visiting teenaged granddaughter, for example, you might say, “I hear that you’re torn between applying to large colleges and small ones. Would you mind if I share my thoughts about that?” Or to a son who is suddenly unemployed, “I know this is a difficult time. I’ve had my own difficult times, would you like me to listen?” “Asking before you give advice conveys respect,” Puhn says. “It’s powerful to give people a choice about whether or not they’d like your advice. Grandparents are supposed to be helpful, not hurtful, so you want to show that you want to help.”

Peace-Keeping Tactic: Share the Love 
It may seem hokey, but if you can do it, get the whole group involved in one shared activity to create a lasting memory—isn’t that what Thanksgiving’s about? “It can help enormously to have at least one or two structured moments when the guests all feel equal in an enjoyable activity,” Felder says. Start a discussion (the host should go first) in which you ask everyone to name one thing that they’re thankful for. Or to name one of their favorite Thanksgiving memories. Or to come up with a Thanksgiving wish. “If you design a question that embraces the unique viewpoints of each participant, you will often find it deepens the sense of the holiday and brings out the best in most of the guests,” Felder says.

Remember, you can do it! Even the Pilgrims and Native Americans got along on Thanksgiving Day.

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