You love them, but they make you nuts. Can’t wait to see them, but you are darn happy to leave or get them out of your house. Is it any wonder that the most stressful time of the year is when you spend the most time with your relatives—all of them, at one time, under one roof?
By 2020 we will see more “blended”/stepfamilies and interracial families than the “normal” Huxtable-type model. (The Brady Bunch were actually a blended family, Carol and Mike both having been previously married.)
So be prepared and forewarned before the relatives arrive on your doorstep. Here are the top five “landmine” topics that will inevitably cause explosive discussions and even rifts that you may not be able to close before the next get-together. If you get into one of these situations, don’t take the bait. Whether you have to excuse yourself for the evening or take a walk, don’t step into the ring because, unless your family thrives on debate and has a fantastic sense of humor, there are no winners when it comes to these topics:
PARENTING — “You are too liberal with your kids” (variant: “They run all over you”) or the opposite, “You are too strict; you don’t let them breathe.”
• The bait: “So-and-so was brought up like that, and look what happened to him/her. If you continue this way, your children will surely be convicts/commitmentphobes/hippies when they grow up.”
• Advice: Whether you are a helicopter parent or totally laissez-faire, everyone will have an opinion about how you could be raising your children better. Don’t put on the gloves. Lean back, take a deep breath, circumvent by not losing your sense of humor. How about coming back with “Unless you are offering to take them for the entire summer to experience first-hand the joy of parenting twins, we are not having this conversation. What about those Yankees/Cowboys/Lakers?”
WHOM GRANDMA/GRANDPA LOVES MORE — “You got more attention, more slack, more financial help.”
• The bait: “You were daddy’s girl; you got to talk back; you got a bigger allowance.”
• Advice: No matter how much you try to prove to your adult siblings that your parents loved you all the same, even if they showed it in different ways, childhood grudges are hard to overcome. Don’t look for examples to prove them wrong; try moving the conversation on: “Well, that was then and this is now, and hey, we both survived didn’t we? Lets focus on this delicious dinner and not on what happened 30 years ago.”
ONGOING RIVALRY — “You think you are better than us.”
• The bait: “Because you don’t eat like we do, you think you are special.”
• Advice: Lighten up. Resist sinking to the same level (“Whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.” or “If you loved me you’d eat what I make.”) ’cause this is another battle where there are no victors.
POLITICS — “I can’t believe you voted for him.”
• The bait: “I can name endless media sources to back me up. You are obviously a sucker for voting for him and he is taking our country down.”
• Advice: Get up and announce “No one wins these discussions, so who wants to start a game of Pictionary/Guitar Hero?” If no enthusiasm for your proposed game results, this is the one case where you definitely decide you are taking Fido for a walk.
LIES — “You said you would take grandma to the lake this summer.”
• The bait: “You promised. All summer. We were standing on the porch. And it was raining.”
• Advice: Unless you have a tape of the conversation, this is definitely a no-win situation. If you don’t agree, the other party will get on the defensive and come up with something like, “Are you calling ME a liar?” The best maneuver here is to keep repeating “I don’t recall saying that . . . I don’t honestly remember saying that,” or something to that effect, and then quickly move on to “Lets find a solution to this.” And keep your cool.
If all else fails, you might engage your kids and make it a good parenting moment. By letting them know that there are ways of (literally or figuratively) walking away from senseless discussions that can lead to loss of friends or family, you will teach them the value of tact and discretion. You could have a secret sign that let’s them know they should jump in and help move the conversation in a different direction; for example, “Hey, grandpa, tell us again how you got the better of that sergeant in boot camp . . . Grandma, we want to hear the story about the first day you taught class. Tell us again.” A win-win situation for everyone.
Dr. Belisa Vranich is a clinical psychologist, author, and presenter with a private practice in New York City where she focuses on short-term dynamic psychotherapy that is highly interactive. She’s written five self-help books, including He’s Got Potential: a field guide to shy guys, bad boys, intellectuals, cheaters and everything in between (Wiley Pubs) and Boys Lie (HCI Pubs), a sexual and emotional wellbeing book for teens.