• The unemployed relative (or any sensitive topic): The best way to deal with these areas is to take your lead from the affected person. If the person wants to talk and brings it up, if they open the door to discussion, go ahead. Just be cautious how you talk about it. If a person does not mention his or her eating disorder, leave it alone.
“I imagine there’s a lot more to talk to that person about than their state of employment or unemployment,” Tiger says. “So I’d make conversation about anything else, whatever they want to talk about. The football game on TV, your kids, their kids, a funny TV show you’ve seen. Anything you have in common or in pop culture that isn’t that thorny subject.”
• A family situation: It could be a kid on drugs or an elderly parent’s health or living situation, the sort of subjects that are unhappy or cause sadness or regret rather than an argument. “These aren’t conflicts but could lead to one later if there’s a disagreement,” Turner says.
If a problem-solving discussion is in order, it’d be preferable to delay the confab for another time. But if this holiday gathering is the only time all parties are together, “There’s nothing wrong to talk about something that’s problematic, like an aging relative,” Turner says. She also says it depends on how the family has discussed such matters in the past. Is there a way they reach a consensus, or is there one member who tries to dominate? “If they have a good way to deal with problematic issues, this is a good time to bring it up.” She also suggests making the discussion separate from the family dinner. Eat first, have that family celebration, then adjourn to the living room for the necessary conversation.
• The bad relative: They drink too much, they’re loud and argumentative, and nobody likes them. Almost every family has a designated lout. If he bothers just you — his table manners offend you, he interrupts you frequently — you have two approaches, Turner says. You can build a stronger alliance with family members you do get along with (a de facto support group) or you can take the high road, overlook this person’s behavior and remember that you are there to celebrate the holiday and support the family as a whole. On the other hand, if this ne’er-do-well is making the day miserable for everyone, not just you, stronger actions may be required.
“Unfortunately, there are people who are very toxic and whose presence can be harmful, and they just have to be removed,” Turner says. “If someone is a drug addict or alcoholic and is acting out, they have to be removed, and you can try to get them some help. But there’s nothing you can do at the scene.
“Use ‘I’ messages — ‘I’m concerned about you’ — but you have to remove them from the scene. That’s an absolute last resort, but it does happen.“
• Opening gifts: When? Before the meal? After? Everybody opens presents all in once or one at a time? There’s often no way to make everybody happy. The key is making sure everybody thinks they’ve been heard, and that may be enough to head off problems. Long term, Turner says, maybe do it one way one year, then the other way the next. ”Or sometimes you can come up with an entirely different way, and that can become the tradition.“ It’s also important to communicate in advance so people are prepared for the discussion and don’t have a big blowup on the scene.
• Religion: Like politics, it can be another difficult topic for some families. Maybe one member has converted to another religion and wants to convert everyone else, or one person has deeply held beliefs that others try to question, or somebody marries outside the religion. There are many opportunities for discord. Turner says that, again, the best thing to do is agree to disagree and not use the holiday dinner table as a place to argue over them. Remember it’s one dinner and not a place to bring up these disagreements.
Tiger takes a light approach.
”There’s always some moment in family get-togethers where somebody drops a bomb,“ she says. ”We’re all holding our breath, waiting to see how everyone reacts. I think a good way might be to make light of it, make a joke. Bring a breezy, humorous tone to it and shift gears and get to the next subject. I think that is always a good strategy, lightening things up. Or just, ‘So, who needs another eggnog?’“