Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the holiday season. It’s the time for get togethers over pumpkin lattes, breaking out a killer side dish recipe or hanging decorations. But for many, the holidays can also be the start of something far less joyous: Spending time with a loved one who triggers stress, frustration or even sadness.
Linda’s mother is so critical that no matter how hard she tries, Linda’s hard work preparing a beautiful meal never pleases her, leaving Linda dejected and depressed for weeks. Almost yearly Mario’s cousin gets very drunk, makes a scene and ruins Thanksgiving for the rest of the family. Karen dreads seeing her aunt because she always pits one cousin against the other by gossiping and complaining.
These are just a few of the many stories I hear from patients as the holidays approach, but chances are everyone has at least one similar person they dread seeing every year. A healthier approach is learning how to avoid situations that prompt their negativity.
Linda, for example, would do well to anticipate her mother’s criticism, rather than hoping this time will be different. When the bad behavior occurs, focusing instead on the reactions of appreciative guests would make her holiday much more pleasant. Often, when someone can’t conjure up a positive attitude, it has more to do with their own emotional struggles than with the target of their ire.
Managing a negative guest requires denying them an audience, too. The very first pejorative comment should be met with a blatant change of topic or by disengaging from the physical space: “I really must check on the turkey.” The guest will eventually get the hint that others are not interested in entertaining negative opinions or behavior.
When hosting, use the seating arrangements to help move the belligerent person near someone who won’t care—perhaps a 14-year-old, ear-phone equipped nephew. A practical, problem-solving approach like this yields more than a confrontation. Pulling a gossiping aunt aside will absolutely not change her behavior, it will only leave the confronter more frustrated and her feeling like the victim. The goal should simply be to make it through the day as smoothly as possible.
In other circumstances, a more proactive response might be required. When a guest starts to enjoy the wine a bit too much, cutting him off or inviting him to leave the dinner table for a break in front of the TV keeps everyone safer.It can also be useful to assign another diplomatic volunteer to keep an eye on the potential troublemaker and discreetly intercede when necessary.
In some situations, several family members can band together in advance and strategize ways to handle a toxic guest. Karen and her cousins would do well to agree to not, under any circumstances, allow themselves to get dragged into a conversation with their aunt. If they make a pact to refuse to listen to her bad-mouthing, they will dramatically limit her ability to cause trouble.
Anticipating the inevitable with a little extra planning—and help from friends—can take the stress out of the holiday season and leave plenty of room for enjoyment.
Dr. Susan Bartell is a nationally-recognized psychologist and author practicing in Port Washington; drsusanbartell.com