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6 Tips for Avoiding Family Drama

Here are six concrete steps to help you increase your enjoyment of the day.

Source: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

So, you've printed your boarding passes, you've set up your out-of-office message (even though you'll obsessively check your email anyway), and you've picked out an outfit that will accommodate extra pumpkin pie without making you look six months pregnant.

There might be one more area of Thanksgiving preparation you've overlooked, though—your family.

Every year, in my advice column and my private practice, I hear from people whose main source of holiday stress is not traffic, expenses, or schedules, but family drama—the specter of which can create anxiety for days or even weeks in advance of the holiday. You may love your family dearly, but always dread the same intrusive questions from your sister, or feel personally insulted by your uncle's constant political browbeating. Maybe the quarters are too cramped, your dad drinks too much, or your mother-in-law always forces you to eat more than you want—and her turkey has the consistency of drywall.

Whatever the issue, there are some key strategies to help reduce the stress of dealing with these interactions. They won't all magically turn the holiday into that famous Norman Rockwell painting, but they could allow you to minimize the tension and feel more in control—helping you enjoy and appreciate your loved ones much more easily. (And hey, if you look closely at that painting, you can imagine very easily that someone said something odd and inappropriate right as that turkey hit the table. My guess? The guy on the bottom right.)

1. Anticipate triggers.

Chances are, you think you know these by heart—a certain pattern that gets repeated every year, involving difficult conversations, inconsiderate relatives, or physical discomfort. But think hard and be even more specific. The more you can spell out exactly what is bound to get under your skin, the less power it will have to take you by surprise in the moment.

For every trigger, plan and rehearse your response. Maybe it will be waiting a beat, smiling, and simply changing the subject in reaction to an offensive comment, or maybe a deep breath and a silent mantra. Maybe it will be having a stock, well-rehearsed answer to explain why you're not drinking or why you and your partner broke up. Or perhaps it will be a secret stash of crackers and cheese for the agonizing and grump-inducing wait when the dinner is three hours later than planned (again).

2. Be willing to start fresh.

Many times, holiday drama is at its most potent because it carries the baggage of decades of personality conflicts, grudges, and sore feelings. You and your brother may still be playing out your years of fighting over Legos decades later. Or perhaps you still cringe from all the years where your mom used to criticize your weight. It's quite possible that things have changed, yet the emotional lens through which you see your family has not allowed you to change with it.

What might it be like to temporarily suspend the past, and greet a holiday gathering as a new interaction with new (and possibly improved) people? Try your best to take every conversation as it comes, on its own, like an outside, impartial observer—without giving it the power to make you feel worse by attaching past history to it. Too hard to imagine? Picture yourself as an actor playing a role, and challenge yourself to remain detached.

3. Pre-build an oasis.

Just as important as planning your exact responses to various triggers is preloading your stress-relief punch card, by planning ways that you'll give yourself a breather during your trip (or even in your own home if you're hosting). Often, just knowing that you are going to take a walk by yourself at a certain time, call a trusted friend to recap and have a laugh, or give yourself a half-hour with a novel, your knitting needles, or a game of catch with your nieces in the fresh air is enough to help release tension. And the anticipation of that break—"I'll hash out what was just said when I'm outside on my run"—can free up your mind to let go in the heat of the kitchen.

4. Banish all-or-none thinking.

The over-the-top nature of holiday expectations can make even the most reasonable person think too much in black-or-white terms. Maybe your expectations are simply too unrealistic, and a few sour interactions will spoil your mood for the rest of the day. Maybe your over-reliance on a schedule makes your own hosting responsibilities feel too much to bear when the dinner rolls didn't heat up as expected. Things will not be perfect, nor should they be.

Your family will do some annoying things—they are human. The meal, schedule, travel or "vacation" vibe may be off from what you imagine, but it's important that you don't view the whole thing through a pass/fail dichotomy. Look for the little moments that can become memories to hold onto, or how the pitfalls can become funny stories to be shared later.

5. Rely on comrades.

Even in the biggest horror-shows of family dynamics, there is usually a person or two who at least represents neutral territory. If there is something particular on your mind going into the gathering, think of who may be able to help minimize it, logistically or emotionally. Maybe you can have a concrete talk with your partner about how much it would help if he intervenes when his parents do X, Y, or Z. Or maybe you can good-naturedly ask your cousin to help change the subject when politics come up.

Just making someone else aware of what you're struggling with—and being able to have that shared smile (or grimace!) across the table when things get rough—can bring you a lot of comfort. Plus, it helps to remind you of the connections that make the holiday worth celebrating in the first place.

6. Be grateful.

It sounds cliche, but by now enough research has shown us just how true it is: The more you can bring yourself to focus on gratitude, the better you will feel. It can affect not just your emotional health, but your physical health, too. Yes, your family drives you up the wall, but maybe they also make you laugh, or they had your back in the Condo Wars of 2012.

Maybe a loved one is dealing with health woes, but for that moment you are grateful they are still around to meet your toddler. Maybe your family creates enough stress that what you have to be grateful for is your ability to live your own life when your plane touches back down. Whatever it may be, focus on it and you'll be doing yourself, and the holiday itself, a favor.

More of Dr. Bonior's pieces on stress, holidays, and family: