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Keeping the peace at the holiday dinner table

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Photo credit: skynesher/Getty Images

Insight to help keep the family feast (relatively) conflict-free

The holidays offer days of family bonding, when multiple generations gather at the table, celebrating the joy of being together and saluting each other’s successes. Except when it’s not.

While the holiday does indeed emphasize the ties that bind, Rutgers academic Jennifer Theiss says, it can also be a time when family members navigate perilous terrain, some successfully, others not so much. Old resentments, continued sibling rivalries, longstanding political feuds – all these dynamics can come into play when families reunite for their annual turkey fest.

Families can develop a culture of gratitude by establishing traditions they observe year after year, says Theiss, an associate professor at Rutgers’ School of Communication and Information, whose research focuses on interpersonal communication and family relationships. She shared her insights on why the holiday can be loaded with landmines, and how family members might work ahead of time to lessen the potential for disaster.

Avoiding tension & steering clear of hot-button issues

Question: Although most people genuinely approach Thanksgiving with the best of intentions, what realities exist that create tension rather than foster togetherness?

Jennifer Theiss: I think families mostly approach the holiday with gratitude, love and appreciation for family bonds and traditions, but conflicts may inevitably find their way into the family feast.

Families all have a unique culture and ways of interacting that repeat similar patterns, so the same topics and stories are likely to come up year after year. Although relatives may have the best of intentions asking about when you’re going to finally finish school, or get a real job, or get married, or have children, or lose some weight, facing the same questions (or accusations) you encountered last year inevitably creates tension. Not to mention the fact that no one knows you better than family, so they know all the right buttons to press to get under your skin.

Question: As you note, every family has its particular “hot buttons” – Granddad’s drinking, daughter’s lack of a job, Uncle Joe’s homophobia, Aunt Milly’s racism and so on. What ground rules can hosts set ahead of time to prevent World War III from breaking out?

JT: The hot button issues are kind of inevitable, so hosts who try too hard to control the communication environment will probably be frustrated and disappointed when these topics arise anyway. Certainly, they can make an effort not to raise them themselves, and seat at opposite ends of the table people who are likely to have conflicts. But explicitly telling people not to talk about certain issues is actually a great way to start the conversation you didn’t want to have in the first place.

I think the best hosts can do is accept that some of their loved ones have undesirable traits and opinions that are unlikely to change, and to anticipate that these issues may come up at the most inopportune times. If the conversation starts heading toward risky territory, the host should be prepared to change the subject. Declaring that it’s time for dessert is always a good way to shift focus.

Question: Although horror stories abound, many families truly revel in each other’s company and appreciate the support they receive. How can families work together to create a culture that builds on this gratitude?

JT: Families can start developing a culture of gratitude by establishing family traditions and making sure that they are observed year after year. Traditions can act as a reminder of why we come together each year and create a touchstone for identifying the things that are important to a family.

It’s also important to celebrate the accomplishments of family members, whether big or small. Families who focus on the good things happening within the family are less likely to spend their time fighting over petty conflicts.

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