The Squeaky Wheel

How to protect your psychological health, improve your relationships, and enhance your self-esteem.

How to Prevent Family Meltdowns over the Holidays

How to make family gatherings less tense and more pleasant for everyone

Thanksgiving can easily become soured if minor complaints escalate into major arguments. Last week we discussed setting-up several anti-complaining mechanisms before guests arrive. The following tips will help you minimize tensions on the big day itself, break up squabbles if they do occur and contribute to an entertaining holiday for all.

Get everyone involved. The more effort we invest in something the more we care about it. One way to get people involved is to make sure everyone's traditions are represented. For example, invite in-laws and non-family members to bring something that represents their own family's traditions, whether a dish or a decoration. Remember to be gracious, "Oh, your family decorated the house with Smurfs perched on Bonsai trees for Thanksgiving? Lovely! Let's put papa Smurf's shrub in the hallway with our new neighbor's miniature yak farm display.

Children can be recruited to make decorative arts and crafts (links here and here), set tables or be in charge of announcements and messages: "Dinner will be ready in five minutes!", "The game is starting!" or "Grandpa needs to know if anyone is sitting on his dentures!"

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Don't make it a marathon. Many families and friends spend several days together over the holiday. Taking breaks is very important. Togetherness is wonderful, but it doesn't mean spending every waking moment with one another like you're trapped in a Chilean mine. Be sure to include free time, leave the house, or split up into smaller groups. Reconvene for big meals and specific activities. Make all participants aware of the schedule so they can plan accordingly (don't forget to inform children and teenagers).

As for Thanksgiving dinner, try not to make it a seven hour ordeal. Remember, the original marathon runner dropped dead after the race and he didn't have five servings of stuffing in his system. Your meal should be no longer than 2 hours and 42 minutes-the running time of Avatar-which everyone tolerated sitting through, even the haters.

Keep everyone busy. Boredom breeds arguments. Children are less likely to get along when bored and more likely to get into mischief. Having nothing to do can cause adults to feel tense and irritable as well. Plan a variety of activities. Crafts, board games and custom order jigsaw puzzles (that use a family photo) can occupy adults as well as children for several hours. The NFL serves this purpose brilliantly as well. As for teenagers, even the most brooding and non-communicative among them should enjoy a subtle game of Family Argument Bingo.

Avoid or minimize alcohol. Consuming alcohol in moderation can have a positive effect on social gatherings. However, moderation can be difficult to achieve and harder to enforce. One way to limit alcohol consumption is to limit how much of it you have around. "We've gone through six cases of beer already? That's terrible! I'm so sorry! Would anyone like a refreshing shot of wheatgrass and celery instead?"

If it isn't possible to limit the amount of alcohol present, try suggesting the occasional water toasts to recognize children's achievements. Water helps dilute the alcohol in our bloodstream (thus slowing the intoxication process for over-drinkers). Everyone toasting with water is a great way to make the kids feel included and they should provide a long list of ‘achievements' from which to choose. "Here's to Tamara getting fifth place on her second grade pilgrim diorama!"

Use distraction to break up arguments. Crying infants forget their tears when directed to "look at the birdy!" and distractions work just as nicely with adults. The trick is to have one ready to use if the need arises. One effective distraction is to stage a crisis of your own: Have an expensive looking cheap dish on hand (order $2.49 glass bowls here but don't forget to get rid of the packaging). Then, ‘accidently' break the dish and act distraught, "My great Aunt Ruby's fruit bowl! It's irreplaceable!"

For those not enamored of fake-outs, other distractions can nip tensions in the bud just as effectively: Babies ("Look everyone, she's smiling! Isn't she precious!"), recruiting one of the offenders to perform emergency chores ("If we don't get those sheets in the washing machine they won't be ready before bedtime!") and spontaneous family pictures ("Everyone line up by the stairs like the Von-Trap family and say cheese!").

Have wonderful holidays!

For more ways of reducing stress over the holidays or otherwise, check out my upcoming book: Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries

Copyright 2010  Guy Winch

Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem. more...

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