By Catherine Pearson
For some families, tension around the holidays is quiet — all clenched teeth and subtle jabs. For others, it is big, loud and boozy.
Whatever your kin’s particular brand of friction, having a game plan to avoid conflict or shut it down is a good idea. So we asked readers for the strategies they turn to when family relations get spicy. Hundreds wrote in offering tips, tricks and solidarity. Here is some of our favorite advice.
(Note: Submissions have been edited for length and clarity. We are publishing first names only, because we don’t want to ruin anyone’s holidays.)
Control the setting.
We have a son with special needs, and family events have been challenging for years. There have been tantrums, spilled food and conflict. Our solution? We host. Every year, every holiday. There is no dress code and we keep things simple. It has been easier to be where we can control the environment and where we have a safe space. The downside is that everyone has to travel to us. The upside, for them, is that we do the cooking!
— Stephanie, Savannah, Georgia
My husband and I have both lost our parents, who were the glue that held each of our families together. Since their deaths, our siblings and in-laws don’t feel close enough to have holiday get-togethers in each other’s homes. Old resentments surface, and it’s just uncomfortable. Our extended family now meets in a crowded public place, such as a brewery. You choose who you sit next to, and can’t really talk to the others because of the boisterous atmosphere. Conflict doesn’t usually arise in public, and if it does, it’s too noisy to notice.
— Nancy, Asheville, North Carolina
Find a connection.
My brother and I have very different political views. We have had a couple of fights at Christmastime that upset my mother to the point of tears. So last Christmas, we brought our guitars to the family gathering. (We are lifelong musicians. It’s a hobby for him. I’m a professional.) When we’re singing, we can’t fight. He had such a great time, he stayed longer than planned.
— Jamie, Tucson, Arizona, and Ottawa, Ontario
Stave off regression.
When spending time with family over the holidays, I bring a few mementos — my business cards, photos with friends, and my house keys — all to remind me that I have a fulfilling life elsewhere. I usually keep them where I sleep, private from other family members. These are my “anti-regression” tools. I am old, and my mother is very old. But the family dynamic, no matter the age of the participants, is usually the same forever!
— Maureen, Palm Desert, California
When in doubt, talk sports.
We avoid the following at dinner: the Middle East, Donald Trump, Fidel Castro (we live in Miami), Joe Biden’s age, Grandma’s will, what any college-age child is studying in school, what they want to be when they grow up or why they have a nose ring, earring or tattoos. Stick to: the food, football, the next ski trip, your last trip abroad. When issues arise, we enjoy the old fallback: “How about those Mets?”
— Roger, Miami
Help (and hide).
I have my version of the serenity prayer: God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can — and the wisdom to get up and go do the dishes.
— Lucia, Miramar Beach, Florida
My mom was an elementary schoolteacher for 25 years, and she always told me to go find the kids if I was ever overwhelmed or uncomfortable at a party. “The kids know how to have fun,” she said.
— Kendra, Philadelphia
Connect with others who are struggling.
The holidays often bring intense sadness, as I am missing those who are no longer here. I make an effort to honor them, often through providing meals or gifts to families in need, donating books to the library and volunteering in their name at a local shelter. I also acknowledge my sadness, and give gratitude for what we shared, revisiting memories through photographs. I look for others, also lonely or sad, to reach out to.
— Patricia, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Celebrate on your own terms.
After divorce, the holidays became stressful for my kids because they didn’t want to hurt either parent’s feelings. I wanted to make it so they didn’t feel conflicted, so I created a holiday just for us, with competitions, fun, food, drink, prizes and lots of memory making. We agree on a date in advance around the holidays. It takes the pressure off them having to choose, and it makes me happy because I get time with them. My children call me Gimli, and this will be the five-year anniversary of Gimli Day!
— Heather, Pembroke, Massachusetts
As a gay couple, we are able to capitalize on the expectation we might celebrate differently. So after a few years of “un-joyfully” navigating holiday drama, my husband, Daniel, and I now pack our bags and travel to Mexico each Thanksgiving to spend time in the sun, relax and celebrate — on our terms.
— Joseph, New York