Call Me a Theorist
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Call Me a Theorist

How to Handle Uncomfortable Conversations this Holiday

Ahh, the holiday season, a merry and joyous time of the year… or is it?

By Jessica Huynh, Storyteller for RU Student Life

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, or so they say… The holidays are here, and many of us are heading home to be with family and friends. It’s an exciting and heartwarming time, but it can also be a stressful time for many students. Between your parents grilling you on what you want to do after graduation, your cousins spewing their political views, and your grandparents commenting on your weight, the holidays aren’t always as merry and joyous as we like to believe.

After months of answering only to yourself, it can be tough being home for the holidays and having to over-extend yourself to relatives you haven’t seen in months. Experts told Popular Science that many or most people get stressed being around family during the holidays. We know we should be happy and grateful to be with our loved ones during this wonderful season, and yet we can’t help but feel irritated or annoyed.

So what do you do when it’s time to sit down for the holiday dinner and the conversation topics are getting uncomfortable, heated, or awkward? How do you deal with a relative who is being controversial or a sibling that’s getting on your nerves? I mean, it’s not like you can just excuse yourself in front of the whole family without causing a scene, right?!

Luckily, we provided some helpful tips and tricks to get you through this holiday season. Here’s how to deal with that family member broaching uncomfortable territory:

The Annoying Sibling

Pamela Regan, a psychology professor at California State University told Popular Science that some family members can snap back into their old behavioural paradigms when they are around family. Your brother or sister is behaving childishly because of the dynamic you had with them in your childhood. Family gatherings can cause them (and you!) to fall back into their old behavioural patterns.

If your sibling is purposely annoying you, be mature about the situation. Instead of responding the way you would have when you were younger, try directing the conversation back to something adult-related in their own lives. This will remind them they’re no longer a child and snap them back to reality.

The Overly Curious Parent

Admittedly, you didn’t call your parents as much as you had promised. Now that the holidays are here, it can feel as though your parents won’t stop badgering you with non-stop questions about school, your friends, your dating life, and your future. Instead of getting annoyed, try to remember that they’re only asking because they care about you.

Your irritation is normal even if you’ve been feeling a little guilty for feeling the way you do. Much like your siblings falling back to their childhood behaviours, you may be unconsciously channelling your teenage years when every little thing your parents asked annoyed you. It may feel like every answer to their questions receives criticism or unsolicited life advice, but they only want to impart wisdom to you. Take this as a learning opportunity from someone who only wishes to see you excel in life! Amuse your parents and ask them to elaborate on their stories. You don’t have to take their advice, but you can entertain their ideas and validate their willingness to be open with you.

It’s natural to feel coddled by your parents. You will always be their child. Now that you’re older, don’t take it personally if mum or dad pester you with relentless questions. More often than not, they’re just trying to connect with you in the only way they know how. If you’re not keen on talking about your future or your dating life, answer their questions politely then shift the conversation to a common interest. This will derail the conversation naturally, leaving both of you satisfied with how the conversation played out.

Author Kristin Wong also wrote a great article on How to Answer the Awkward, Private Questions Your Family Always Asks. She provides some helpful solutions on how you can maneuver yourself out of conversations you may not be fond of having with nosy relatives.

The Controversial Cousin

Whether your household is homogeneous or polarizing, you’re bound to run into some disagreements if controversial topics such as abortion, religion, gun ownership, LGBTQ rights, feminism, and race are brought up. The last thing you want to do is to match their anger and volume — this rarely addresses the problem and leaves both parties feeling down in the dumps.

When a relative says something problematic, hold them accountable for their words without pointing fingers and making sweeping statements about their character. In the WikiHow article on How to Deal With Racist Parents, they note that the key to getting through to your controversial family member is to focus on their behaviour rather than making accusations about what kind of person they are. The last thing you want to do is have your relative get defensive and feel attacked for their beliefs (even if you disagree with them). Always address the situation calmly but firmly, letting them know that what they said is not okay.

You can even try making anecdotal analogies to see if framing your point of view a different way will get them to understand where you are coming from. Always listen and seek to understand first before you respond even if what they have to say is problematic to you right from the get-go. Once they’ve said everything they wanted to say, you can let them know how their beliefs made you feel by framing your thoughts with, “I feel…” This is a great way to let others know that what you feel is valid even if they may not agree with what you have to say. People are less likely to get defensive if you frame your responses this way. Doesn’t “I feel surprised and hurt that these are your views because…” seem a lot less aggressive than “How can you even think that?” People are more receptive and attuned to your views if you use mindful language.

Unfortunately, the saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is true sometimes. Some relatives are stuck in their mindset and it’s impossible to convince them otherwise. In these scenarios, the best course of action is to express disagreement the moment it happens and let them know you won’t continue engaging with them. The holidays are a difficult time and calling out a controversial relative can by tricky if family and friends are around (especially if you worry that others will gang up and take sides). That’s why it’s important to gauge the situation. If you need to, pull your relative aside and have the discussion privately. That way, they don’t feel publicly humiliated by being called out.

The Blunt Grandparent

Some relatives can be a little blunter than others, such as pointing out when you’ve gained or lost weight since your last family reunion. Dealing with an over-honest grandparent or a confrontational aunt can be difficult to navigate, especially if you already know of your bodily changes. If a family member has a reputation for being insensitive, try asking your parents or someone you trust if they can speak with them ahead of time. An alternative solution is to shut down the comments and let them know that you do not appreciate it. Other times, laughing it off and making a joke about it can be a great way to dismiss their comments. It’s exhausting standing up to family members, so if you need to, let a sibling know you need the extra support to stick up to grandma.

The holidays aren’t always as peachy and stress-free as greeting cards would like us to believe. No matter how stressful the holidays get, it’s important to remind yourself of the positive and loving qualities of your family and friends. In most cases, your family members love you and don’t try to bring stress into your life. However, if you need to excuse yourself, don’t feel guilty about having to do so. For those whose holidays teeter on the edge of chaotic, remember to practice self-care before, during, and after the holiday season.

Happy holidays!




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A curation of great ideas coming out of Ryerson University.

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