Christmas is a time for peace on earth and good will to all – until your brother-in-law makes crude jokes at the dinner table and your nephew torments your little angel at every turn. Tense confrontations will only dampen the cheer, but that doesn’t mean you must bite your tongue until the last relative has packed up and left, says Shyamala Kiru, a registered marriage and family therapist in Markham, Ont. Here’s how to cope with family members at the “most wonderful time” of the year.
1. Set time limits for visits with difficult relatives. Start a family dinner later in the day or suggest a two-night visit instead of a week-long stay.
2. Instead of planning an intimate meal with relatives you don’t get along with, invite good friends to join you. Having a larger gathering can help “diffuse” a difficult relationship, Kiru advises.
3. Be careful not to serve (or imbibe) too much alcohol during family visits. Despite its reputation as a social lubricant, alcohol is more likely to intensify emotions such as anger and sadness, Kiru says.
4. Before a family visit, take time to identify your feelings around specific family members. Do you tend to feel inadequate around them, or angered by things they have said?
5. If a relative’s words or actions trigger these feelings, take a break in a private bedroom or bathroom to soothe yourself. Kiru suggests repeating a helpful phrase, such as “I can get through this,” and taking deep breaths to calm down.
6. Avoid confronting relatives in the middle of a family event. In most cases, Kiru says it’s better to address difficult behaviour beforehand (for example, if a mother-in-law has a habit of getting bossy in your kitchen) or after the visit (when you can let your sister know that you did not appreciate being teased about your weight gain).
7. Set boundaries by using “I” statements, and speak calmly, keeping your tone even and voice low. Kiru recommends saying something like, “I don’t know if you are aware of this, but I don’t feel comfortable when you do X.”
8. Respect that in-laws may have family traditions and cultural norms you may not fully understand. When couples come from different ethnic backgrounds, or even different parts of Canada, sometimes bridging the gap “does take a lot of openness and acceptance,” Kiru says.
9. Recognize that spending time with your partner’s family may be a worthwhile sacrifice for the good of your relationship. Unless an in-law is physically or emotionally abusive, Kiru says, you can probably put up with annoying behaviour for short periods of time.
10. When dealing with a difficult relative who is unlikely to change, try to find at least one thing you have in common or a quality you enjoy about him or her. “That can really shift things,” Kiru says.