Conversation Starters for Tough Holiday Topics

Every year families are faced with age-old dilemmas, “what are your plans for the holidays?” “what to get the kids?” and complicated guest lists.  We sat down with Dr. Rita DeMaria, professor for Jefferson’s (Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University) Department of Couple & Family Therapy, to learn about how to set healthy boundaries during the holidays.

#1 Making the Rounds

Deciding between your own family and your partner’s family can create a sticky situation, particularly for blended families.

It is important that each partner find out what plans are at play in their immediate and/or close family.  If plans are not yet set, let the family members know your preferences for this holiday season.

Parents must set boundaries with each other based on what is important for each of you and for your children.  Communication is key and this is no time for being a placator and agreeing to something that is unlikely to work out. Nothing can derail your holiday plans like agreeing to split the day, then finding out your partner promised the whole day.

Common strategies are splitting the day, alternating year-to-year or hosting the whole family.

#2 Not Seeing Eye-to-Eye on Gift Giving

Are grandparents spoiling the grandkids? Or gift-giving traditions not matching up? Dr. DeMaria said, “Often parents are told by grandparents ‘you can’t tell me what to give my grandchild.’” This sets up conflict before it begins and can stir up trouble for everyone, but children suffer the most.

Instead, try:

Have the conversation about plans for gift giving before the holidays. Dr. DeMaria said “each partner should speak to his or her own family about the gift giving policy they have chosen to follow. Be respectful and considerate at all costs.”

Be upfront about what Santa is giving the kids, so that grandparents don’t inadvertently duplicate.

Parents should be clear and firm with the grandparents about what their expectations are and give them a chance to say what they hope for.”   If things really heat up, take the conversation offline or to another room if children are present.

Common strategies include, adopt-a-family programs, family vacations or a Secret Santa.

#3 Navigating the Guest List

So, you’ve decided to host this year to avoid the round robin of holiday visits. But Aunt Shirley won’t be seen in the same room as her ex-husband, who you are still close with. Dr. DeMaria says “families are complicated even under good circumstances and the built-up stresses often emerge during the holiday event”.

Again, communication is the key. Have an open conversation with all parties about who will be attending, expressing your care and affection for the whole family and maintain a positive perspective.  Choose one or two family members who can help you run interference if troubles begin to brew.   They can be your helpmates in keeping the peace

Be watchful if the party ‘spirits’ (aka alcohol) seem to be taking over and stirring up trouble. Take time to connect with your guests.

Remember your children are watching!   They are your future.


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