Survival Tips For Spending The Holidays With Family

Written by Posted On Saturday, 30 November 2013 09:10

The holidays are almost here, and you know what that means: You'll soon be in a house full of family. And if you're anything like, well, everyone, there will be at least one person you'd rather not see even once a year.

What if the house everyone is gathering at is yours?

Here comes the whole gang and their ganglets, descending upon you with their food allergies and their temperature sensitivities and their insistence upon putting mini marshmallows on sweet potato casserole.

The one thing you don't want to do is cause a big family scene and risk getting cut out of the will. Or, even worse, inciting family tensions that will never be forgotten - because in your family, the annual rehash is legendary - by arguing over whether or not the mashed potatoes should have lumps (they should, but not too lumpy) or whether the cranberry sauce should be jellied or whole berry (whole berry, every time) or what movies to watch on Christmas Eve (ELF followed by Christmas Vacation - no argument).

So follow our guide to getting along at holiday time. Not only will you keep the peace (and your sanity), but you also just might have a good time.

Tip #1: Manage Your Expectations

It's lovely to think that a multi-generational kumbaya moment will envelope the family for a week (or more) over the holidays.

akward family photos at Christmas
Photo courtesy of

It's much more likely that many hours of togetherness exacerbated by late nights, incompatible sleeping habits and dueling pancake recipes, will create a few dozen occasions ripe for sarcasm and side eyes, at the very least.

"Don't expect too much. Our families are what they are - and that might not match our dream of what we wanted them to be," said the Wall Street Journal. "Learn to separate your real family from your idealized vision and accept them in all of their glorious imperfections."

Or, you could always get a room, they said, "staying in a hotel, instead of at a relative's house, to relieve pressure on the family. And it gives you a place to retreat when you need to get away."

Tip #2: Put The Odds In Your Favor

Do as you should always do with family, and leave the hot topics off the table. That means no talking about politics, religion, or who's gay in Hollywood.

The Wall Street Journal agrees. "Avoid provocative topics. Holidays, when emotions are already heightened, aren't the time to rehash old wounds or resolve ongoing issues. Avoid divisive subjects such as politics, personal choices - even sports, if that's a flashpoint in your family."

Here a quick cheat sheet of things it's OK to talk about:

  • The weather (depending on where everyone has driven/flown in from, there is the possibility of a pleasant all-night convo here. And very little possibility of it devolving into a fistfight, unless your great aunt from Florida is REALLY passionate about humidity.)
  • Favorite breakfast cereals
  • Puppies
  • Cookies
  • Sunsets
  • Corporal punishment (kidding…just making sure you're paying attention)
  • Italy
  • The Ice Capades
  • Dustin Hoffman

Tip #3: Making The Visit Easier When You're Hosting

  • If you are having guests, ask ahead of time what they can and cannot eat. Better to have a houseful of tofu and soy cheese for your vegan cousin-in-law than have a grumpy vegan cousin-in-law sulking on the couch gnawing on the only veggie in the fridge.
  • If there are naptimes to consider, try to set up a space away from the action.
  • Are older kids coming to visit? A stockpile of movies and age-appropriate video games is only slightly less important than stocking the house with food.
  • Toilet paper. Lots and lots of toilet paper.

Tip #4: Cross Your Fingers Behind Your Back

In other words, don't overvalue the truth when a little fib could save you hours of arguments and end up in heartache.

Is your daughter's interracial relationship going to send grandpa off on a racist rant? Maybe the sabbatical you're about to take so you can "find yourself" with a few months off will incite a fight with a relative who's desperate to find work.

Not only is it OK to avoid certain topics with family, it might even be OK to develop alternate realities for the occasion depending on the issue, according to Buzzfeed. Their recommendation for avoiding a relationship discussion when you're unattached: "Fake (or exaggerate) a relationship." Which actually works, we may or may not know from experience.

Tip #5: Bite Your Tongue And Make A Game Of It

If all else fails, use the concept of participant observation, a social science technique that's, essentially, a more clearly defined version of people watching. Participant observation will be very important when you play Dysfunctional Family Bingo, an Oprah recommendation for getting through the holidays with a smile.

Dysfunctional Family Bingo

"This is one of my favorite games, though it involves considerable preparation. A few weeks before the holidays, gather with friends and provide each person with a (blank) bingo card. Each player fills in her bingo squares with dysfunctional phrases or actions that are likely to surface at her particular family party. For example, if you dread the inevitable 'So when are you going to get married?' that question goes in one square of your bingo card. If your brother typically shows up crocked to the gills, put 'Al is drunk' in another square, and so on."

Finished cards tag along to your family gatherings, and you mark off a square every time the situation warrants. The first one of you to get Bingo calls or texts the others who are playing. Your sneaky secret will keep things light, even when the conversation at the table gets dark.

If you like the idea of this but it's just too much work, #ThingsGrammaSays and #DrunkAtChristmasDinner make great Twitter hashtags.

Tip #6: Holiday Postscript

The post-game strategy after a holiday visit is no different than after a date, a tropical vacation, a breakup, or even a good outing to the mall: You need to tell someone all about it.

"It's crucial to follow up on family events by debriefing with someone you love. If your brother really "gets" you, call him after a family dinner you've both survived," said Oprah.

Have another tip for surviving family visits over the holidays? We'd love to hear about it.

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