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Toss the family baggage at holiday time Add to ...

There is an unfortunate holiday gift – a very bad gift indeed – that parents can unwittingly give their teenaged children. But there is a way to turn that bad gift into something very good.

Vivian was approached by her 14-year-old daughter, Fiona, just as they were about to go into the dining room for the traditional Christmas feast at Vivian’s sister’s home.

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“Mom, Aunt Victoria says I’m supposed to sit at the little kids’ table, and April [her four-months-older cousin]gets to sit at with the adults. It’s not fair.”

Fiona’s mother spoke to her sister.

“Victoria, can’t Fiona sit at the big table? I’m sure there’s room.”

“Well, actually, Vivian, there isn’t. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to fit everybody in just right with the place settings, and it won’t work with an extra person. I’m sorry. It’s not going to hurt her to sit with the other kids this year.”

“Well, actually it will. She feels it’s a put-down. Especially since April gets to be with the adults.”

“Vivian, why do you always have to make things difficult? Can’t you just go along and not make a big problem? You’re not happy until you spoil everything.”

“You’re the one who spoils everything. You can’t get over the fact that Fiona does so much better than April. You’ve always been jealous of anything I have.”

“Me jealous? Because Mom always liked me better, I’m the jealous one? Get over it, Vivian.”

“I’ll get over it,” said Vivian, who then turned away, got her daughter and left the gathering.

The sisters did not speak to each other for more than a year, and though partially reconciled, they have never again been as close as they once were.

Holidays are a special time for families. But so, too, can they occasion historic family disasters.

Will won’t speak to his brother Dan since the time Dan had too much eggnog and said some very inappropriate things to Will’s wife.

Eva’s been cool toward her father since he bought a shockingly more expensive gift for his other grandson than he did for her Jonathan.

Holiday gatherings are more than simple get-togethers – they are an opportunity for a lot of feelings to come to the surface. Old feelings. Deep feelings. Not so mature feelings. And holiday incidents that start small can be magnified with the passage of time to become historic hurts – with resultant big losses.

“I just can’t get over what she said,” Vivian thought.

But it isn’t just about Vivian. It’s about the next generation. Fiona gets pulled into it and loses a friendship with her cousin.

Yet it doesn’t have to happen. For there is a very different way of looking at what transpired that can lead to a much more positive outcome. It cannot prevent nasty incidents from happening, as they are unpredictable and spontaneous. But the historic hurt does not necessarily have to be historic.

The secret is not to lose sight of the top priority – the long-standing relationship that has been a huge part of both sisters’ lives. Don’t focus on the sting of the hurt. Or that what the offender did that was so wrong, selfish, unforgivable. In time that will lose its sting. It would be unfortunate to end a relationship over that.

What should Vivian do?

Soon, not in the moment – for the feelings are too strong – but maybe the next day, or the day after, Vivian needs to apologize.

“Victoria, I’m sorry. I was wrong. I am truly sorry about what happened. You matter more to me than seating arrangements. Maybe next year we can figure out how we can sit Fiona at the adult table. But what I care about is you and me.”

She should not get into what her sister may have also done wrong. She should not make excuses. The apology must be unequivocal. Vivian has to decide which is more important – that the relationship goes forward or that her sister admits how wrong she and how right Vivian was.

Once she has apologized to her sister, she needs to speak to Fiona.

“I apologized to your aunt. I know you wanted to sit at the big table, and I spoke to Victoria about next year. But we have to get past it – even if your cousin and your aunt don’t see it. It is very important not to wreck our relationship over you not getting to sit at the adult table.”

Here’s what Fiona learns: My mom believes that her hurt feelings – even if Aunt Victoria never apologizes – aren’t worth wrecking a relationship.

And Fiona gets to see her mother continuing a close relationship with her sister. And she gets to stay connected with her aunt and her cousin.

Wouldn’t it have been too bad if Mom and I never saw them again because of me and the stupid kids’ table?

This is a good gift.

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including I’d Listen to My Parents if They’d Just Shut Up. E-mail him questions at awolf@globeandmail.com.

 

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