How to avoid family drama during your holiday dinner

If your family get-togethers are more like Festivus — the Seinfeld-invented "holiday" that includes airing all your family grievances — there are ways to avoid all the family drama this season.

Winnipeg psychologist Syras Derksen's tips to get through family time with few squabbles

Psychologist Syras Derksen says your family dinner is not the best place to air grievances. (Elisha Dacey/CBC)

If your family get-togethers are more like Festivus — the Seinfeld-invented "holiday" that includes airing all your family grievances — there are ways to avoid all the family drama this season.

Winnipeg psychologist Syras Derksen says your Christmas dinner doesn't need to be served with a side of steaming resentment. 

"I think that when you put family members together that maybe have some problems already, it's not so much that they necessarily come to it with a bunch of things they want to say, but the proximity and the amount of time together all kind of slowly bubbles over," said Derksen.

"And people do start to begin to remember all the [past grievances] and that can become a problem when these holidays come around."

Dr. Derksen's tips for avoiding holiday drama

  • Don't bring up grievances during peaceful dinners.

"I think when people are looking forward to a peaceful time with the family, it's [twice as bad] when you try to interrupt some kind of nice event with a grievance. And people will take it as 'Wow, you couldn't even wait? That must mean it must be even more significant, and that means I'm even more offended.'"

  • If you must, do it quietly, without an audience.

"I don't recommend people bring up grievances in the presence of a community of observers. It's probably best to take the person aside at another time, for sure."

  • If you have a good relationship with the person you're upset with, be sincere. If you have a bad relationship with the person you're upset with, expect it to go poorly.

"Research found how you [repaired a relationship] really didn't matter. Why does it not matter? Why do these clunky repairs sometimes work and these really skilled — like as if written by a social worker — repairs don't work? And then they found that it was related to the relationship beforehand."

  • Go slowly​.

"If the person may already be aware of it you can kind of tackle it gently and slowly and say — I'll just use an example of a sock on the floor … you can say, 'I want to talk about the bedroom.' And the other person may be like, 'Oh, sorry about the sock.' So you can kind of approach it slowly."

  • Make the conversation important.

"If you're not as close to the other person, you can kind of say, 'There's something in between us, I want to be closer to you.' They might say, 'Yeah, I've noticed that too,' or they might not have a clue what you're talking about. But if you frame it in the sense that you want to repair, you want to have a better relationship, that this relationship is important, then [it will go better] for you."

If someone else starts drama with you or the family

  • Understand when you get mad, you become illogical.

"Watch yourself if your heart rate starts to go up, and you're seeing a physical response in yourself and you notice that your mind is going to things about the other person, and you can't really address the issue — that's not a good time to talk about it. People become illogical very quickly. Be aware of that about ourselves. If we start to become activated we become illogical and it takes quite a while to come down from that."

  • Use this approach to get out of the conversation.

"You can say 'OK, well, what you're saying is really important. So important that I really need to pay attention to it, so let's schedule this for a time when I can really give it the attention it deserves because it's so important and we want to address it really well.'"

  • Take time — a lot of time — to calm down.

"It takes about 20 minutes to calm down physically, but it can take, like, three hours to calm down to actually become logical in your mind again. Taking a significant break to come back to it — if you can arrange that it can be very helpful."

  • Try to remind people to be graceful. It might even work.

"If you have a lot of influence in the circle that you're in … you can try to force people to be graceful. It's very difficult to do, and I don't think I've actually seen it done in a difficult situation other than in my office, where it sometimes does work. But it can work."

About the Author

Elisha Dacey

Journalist

Elisha Dacey is a journalist with CBC Manitoba. She is the former managing editor of Metro Winnipeg and her work has been seen in newspapers from coast to coast. Reach her at elisha.dacey@cbc.ca.

With files from The Weekend Morning Show