While getting the chance to spend downtime with family is a bright spot throughout the holidays for many people, that extra time with relatives can feel like an ominous task for others. You may be able to avoid tense or awkward conversations throughout the rest of the year, but family reunions can make it especially difficult to deal with the holidays if you’re not religious but your family is. Not everyone has great relationships with their relatives, whether it’s due to opposing political philosophies or differences in faith. Naturally, being put into a confined space for an extended period of time with family members that you may not see eye-to-eye with can seem like a challenge, especially when you’ll be sitting across from them at dinner and asking them to pass the mashed potatoes.
Though everyone’s situation is different, there are some tips you can use to help keep the family drama to a minimum, if that’s your goal. “For some people, dealing with family is simply a matter of being assertive and planning for good self-care,” Dr. Jacob Goldsmith, a licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, tells Bustle. “Other folks need to strategize more carefully, as assertiveness can backfire in toxic situations.”
Dr. Goldsmith suggests a three-part strategy to deal with family stress. Begin by assessing what you know about yourself and what you know about your family to help you come up with a plan. Consider what’s worked and what hasn’t worked in the past when dealing with your relatives, and whether you want to avoid the elephant in the room or feel that it’s important to try to have a discussion about your different values. Then, figure out how you want to feel about yourself after the holidays to help guide you in making a plan. The third step requires actually developing a plan to help guide you throughout the holiday.
“In the past, I think the stock advice was to avoid difficult topics, but that now feels out-of-touch with the needs of a lot of young adults who feel passionate about what they believe and want to at least attempt to have tough conversations,” Dr. Goldsmith explains. “Connecting with family when you disagree about politics or religion takes a lot of empathy and a lot of compassion. It also takes emotional awareness, strong communication skills, and the ability to stay relatively calm.”
Tactics like maintaining a calm tone to help diffuse tough situations and practicing having difficult conversations (if you want to have them) are important. Setting boundaries, like voicing your concerns to your family or setting aside alone time as a break, are also great coping strategies. If you want to avoid the topic of religion, try to set that boundary. Dr. Goldsmith suggests calmly saying something along the lines of, “I know we feel very differently about religion/politics/values, and I really want to enjoy this time with you so I ask that we avoid that topic until a different day.”
On the other hand, if you want to try to talk things through, set a realistic goal for that conversation. If your devout relative (or relatives) isn’t likely to be swayed by one conversation, you shouldn’t set that as your intention. “Realize that there are often unintended short-term consequences to starting to be direct,” Dr. Goldsmith says. “Some families respond well when someone asks for a change — other families respond angrily and defensively. So I try to prepare clients — if you’ve never set good emotional boundaries and you start, people may push back. The good news is that is the start of a process that leads to long term change. The bad news is that in the short term it can make for an awkward, difficult holiday.”
Another helpful tip is to remind yourself that the family interaction has a time limit. As long as the situation doesn’t feel harmful to you, focusing on fact that it’s a finite visit can help keep an otherwise stressful situation feel more manageable, Dr. Chloe Carmichael, a New York-based licensed clinical psychologist, tells Bustle.
She also suggests coming up with questions for the relatives that you don’t see eye-to-eye with, if you want to have a conversation with them. In a religious situation, for example, you can acknowledge your differences and then ask questions to better understand where the relative is coming from, such as what they get from religion, and if they ever went through a time where they felt differently. “Becoming curious about the topic is one way to navigate a situation where you have different values,” Dr. Carmichael says.
It’s also okay to opt out of certain activities or events if you feel they won’t be conducive to fruitful interactions. For example, if your family wants to celebrate Midnight Mass on Christmas, you don't necessarily need to go with them. “There’s a tipping point, and it’s different for each person, where you’d say to yourself, ‘Family is important, but so are my personal standards and I’m opting out of this one,’” says Dr. Carmichael.
Basically, planning is key here. “Family dynamics tend to repeat over time with amazing predictability,” Dr. David H. Rosmarin, founder and director at the Center for Anxiety, tells Bustle. “If you anticipate being distressed when surrounded by family, make sure to give a bit of of thought in advance about what you expect will happen and how you [intend] to manage complex interactions.”
If you are dreading holiday family interaction to the point where it is interfering with your life, consider reaching out to a therapist for your own mental health. Family therapy may be another option to help deal with the stress and emotions brought on by ideological differences. Dealing with family can be messy and complicated, especially during the holidays. With some preemptive planning and self-reflection, you can hopefully make any family time go as smoothly as possible.