Happy Holidays? Dealing with Difficult Relatives.
As we reconnect with family over the holidays how do we deal with difficult relatives? Dr. Lisa explains the importance of crafting a plan that can help navigate what should be a happy time of year. What about relatives who might say offensive or insensitive things? Dr. Lisa describes how helping kids learn how to deal with them can turn awkward interactions into valuable teachable moments. Lisa and Reena draw from life on the high seas as they explain how establishing “submarine rules” might be an effective strategy in some homes this season.
November 23, 2021 | 25 min
Transcript | Happy Holidays? Dealing with Difficult Relatives.
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 57: Happy Holidays? Dealing with Difficult Relatives
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional
mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,
consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: The holidays are approaching, and to gather or not together? That is still the question.
LISA: It is. It is.
REENA: What are you guys doing?
LISA: You know we host my in-laws, and it’s wonderful, and we have a real, you know, kind of set routine. Everybody brings the same thing every year. We’ve got it kind of down, and last year we did it outdoors in mid-October, and this year, thanks to vaccines and testing, we can do it indoors. How about you guys?
REENA: We’re still trying to figure it out. You know, trying to see where our comfort level is, and we’ve been getting a lot of feedback from our listeners about help, they want help, and this letter came in to us. It says: ‘Dear, Dr. Lisa. Last year, we skipped having my in-laws come for Thanksgiving and it was such a relief. This year we’re back to our regular routine. My husband’s parents are fundamentally decent people, but having them come for the holidays is always tense. They rub my 13-year-old the wrong way because they’re loud, opinionated and they talk down to him like he’s a young child, and they make me uncomfortable because they talk in front of our 10-year-old daughter about inappropriate topics. My husband is over it. He shuts down when they’re here, and while I feel for him, I’m the one left holding the bag. I want Thanksgiving to be a pleasant family experience, and I don’t want to feel like the person who has to make that happen. How do I deal with this conflict? I don’t want to dread the holidays. Please help.’ Ugh. Where do you begin?
LISA: Probably half of our listeners have this letter in their minds is my guess.
REENA: But it is a true inflection point, right? I feel so many people are going through this.
LISA: It is, and I think there’s so many people stocking up on a lot of wine and booze to get through the holidays because I think a lot of people had really mixed feelings about last year’s Thanksgiving in particular being disrupted. On the one hand it was very sad for a lot of people, and I think a lot of people were like, whew, dodged that bullet for a year. So, I know that many families are bracing for the return to old routines.
REENA: So, I want to start with the teenager component to this. So, how would you tackle that? Because your kids are like first priority here, right?
LISA: Yeah. He’s not having it, right? And like you can totally picture a 13-year-old boy just having, actually any 13-year-old, you know, having zero patience for the loud, opinionated grandparents who talk down to him. Like that is so classically, exactly how to antagonize a 13-year-old, and I’m thinking about, actually, in our most recent episode we were talking about materialism and 13-year-olds being pretty concrete.
LISA: And so you still have that problem here. You have a pretty concrete kid who may feel like they’re jerks, I don’t want to deal with them, I don’t have to be nice. You know that they may feel very much that way in the world. Now you also may have a 13-year-old who’s thinking has shifted into a more sophisticated space, who can get it that just because their grandparents annoy them they still have to be polite and at least try to be friendly, you know, let it roll off their back. So, you have to know which kind of 13-year-old you have, and if you have the really concrete 13-year-old, I think you probably need to make a rule, which is to say, look, I get it. They get under your skin. I need you to be polite. And just be really straightforward about it and empathic and straightforward, and it reminds me when I was growing up, one of my really good friends whose parents used to pay them to be nice to their grandparents.
REENA: No, really?
LISA: That’s the solution they came up with in their family, and I don’t know that I’m recommending. It cracks me up, but I do like whatever, you know, setting aside the financial transaction, I do like the parents acknowledging like, we’re asking you a favor. We’re asking you to play along with their behavior, and I think actually with a 13-year-old the little object lesson you could slide in here is it’s not personal, right? This isn’t about you. They’re not thinking about you. They don’t think you’re a little kid. They’re not thinking about it, and see if, you know, wherever your 13-year-old is developmentally, see if they can get a little distance on it, and then a 13-year-old who thinks in a more sophisticated way, and it’s just a neurological event that has happened or not, it’s not an intelligence question, a 13-year-old who’s a little more sophisticated is going to be able to latch more readily on to the idea of like, eh, that’s them, you know, that they don’t really get me. They don’t know me. This isn’t an insult. This is just how they operate.
LISA: I can separate myself from that, but I think there’s going to be some advanced conversations with the 13-year-old.
REENA: So, I’m curious, Lisa, about the 10-year-old and the inappropriate talk in front of the daughter.
LISA: That’s not so great, right?
LISA: That’s a tricky one. What would you do?
REENA: Well, you know, I just feel like these days even talking politics can feel inappropriate. You just don’t want to wade into it anymore, right? Because it just can be such a tense topic, I feel like especially after the elections, right?
LISA: Yeah that can get pretty hot. It’s funny, have you ever heard this? I don’t know why I just remembered this now. Somewhere along the way I heard this thing about rules for submarines and meals at submarines, which was you couldn’t discuss religion or politics, and this was, you know, forever, and I think there was sort of this sense of like, we’re all stuck here together. We are all, you know, trapped in a very small space, and I think it’s stuck with me because it seems so smart in a way.
REENA: I love that.
LISA: Yeah, so I wonder.
REENA: So, everybody should send like big submarine images and emails saying the submarine rules apply?
LISA: We’re going with submarine rules this Thanksgiving. Well, actually, okay so it’s funny, Reena, like I wonder if, first of personal preparation’s your best friend. So, this is the parent who’s already thinking, this could go sideways with my in-laws. They could say something I don’t want them to stand for my kid, and then you’re rightly anticipating, oh there’s lots of ways that the dinner conversation could get super weird and uncomfortable. What I wonder, and tell me if you think this is a plausible plan, I wonder if the parent could kind of be ready with the light and funny intervention if it starts to get weird. You know just say something like, let’s go with what I’ve heard are submarine rules, where like at the dinner table, especially over the holidays, is you don’t talk politics, religion or about that super weird TV show you’re watching that doesn’t really sound appropriate for 10-year-olds, you know something like that. I wonder if there’s a way to have that in a parent’s pocket. What do you think?
REENA: Wow. That’s a great idea. I think it’s all that preparation, isn’t it? Like you’ve got to have a plan. You can’t just wing it is what I’m hearing from you.
LISA: I think you can’t, especially if you know who you’re dealing with. The other thing that occurs to me is you could just have a new topic, right? I mean maybe you have something really compelling that you are sitting on, and so then you can see your in-laws taking the conversation down some roads that you definitely do not want to see what is further down that road, and then you say, oh hey, have we told you about the incredible thing that, you know, let’s say the little girl’s name is Molly, did in her art class? Hey Molly, go get that pottery that you made. Like I wonder if having something ready to go in a kind of seamless way.
REENA: As a distraction?
LISA: As a distraction. I mean using distraction as a tactic. Like you do with 3-year-olds. You know, how 3-year-olds, or 2-year-olds, especially if they’re doing something they’re not supposed to be doing, like scolding them doesn’t work. It’s all about distraction. You’re like, oh check out this truck, look at this excellent Tonka truck, or whatever. Basically, Tonka truck your in-laws is what I would say.
REENA: You know, this reminds me how so much I feel as a new puppy owner, I never had a puppy before, how so much of parenting applies. When the dog goes crazy, I’m like, go outside, everybody run. Run with the dog, and I feel like there’s got to be a distraction for the family at some point. Like everybody run around the block, you know, do something that will get the conversation in a different direction.
LISA: Absolutely. So, actually, like let’s think through the kinds of, you know, there’s the conversational Tonka truck, but I also wonder if there are other planned events, rather than just being like, well I’m going to put out a bunch of wine and see what happens next, you know, if instead there’s like, oh, hey, there’s a really nice hike in our neighborhood. So, after dinner we’re all going to get up and go on this hike. Or, hey, we have this fun new game and everybody can play it, you know, that if there’s worries about tension or behavior from one’s guests.
LISA: If there’s not some real benefit of having a whole toolbox of distracting activities that one could introduce as needed, right? I would be cautious about being like, hello. Welcome to our home. The schedule is this. Boom, boom, boom, boom. That may not work for a lot of people, but I do wonder if you’re like, okay here’s my three distracting topics. If we need to change the conversation at the dinner table, here is this cool game we bought. This is a cool hike we’re doing, and this movie that’ll get everybody to stop talking or something like that.
REENA: Right. So you have a plan. You’ve got something to do. So this is the harder part I found was a piece about the husband because I find it just parenting in general, as most people know, if you both aren’t on the same page, it makes what you’re trying to implement or do harder.
LISA: Yeah. Yeah. You know, and she says he’s over it, and when I take that to mean is that he’s annoyed parents too, but he’s not going to ask them to be different than they are. You know that he’s not going to correct them about how they talk to his son. He’s going to, you know, tell them to knock it off if they talk about things that are inappropriate. He’s taking, this sounds more critical that I mean, I want to unpack it a little bit, but he’s he’s been very passive, you know, about their visit, and, you know, if you think about it from his perspective, and I think that’s always what we want to start, the perspective of the person we’re trying to take care of, that may be a tactical maneuver. That may be for him, you know, as the grown child of these, you know, grandparents, he may feel like, you know what? Path of least resistance is the quickest, cleanest way through this holiday, and I am just going to sit here quietly, maybe nurse my beer, and find my way through this, and that I have a lot of empathy for. You know, I could totally see how that, for this man, may be personally a decision that works really well, but it doesn’t work well for his spouse, and so we have to think that piece through.
REENA: Okay, what about dealing with conflict? Because I feel like that is such a huge issue just over the years, even before COVID, dealing with relatives that you just don’t see eye to eye on? It could be more than just politics, but if you don’t get along, what should you keep in mind that works? Because for many people, you know, in-person contact is pretty much limited to around the holidays each year. You don’t get a lot of time together with some of these people who you might tend to keep a distance with. What works?
LISA: Oh, man, Reena, this is like a profound question. How does one deal with long hard feelings about the people we are genetically connected to? Or related to by family?
REENA: Yes. That’s it. You just summed it up.
LISA: Yeah, okay, so that’s like the whole field of psychology, but so let’s think it through because it does get to this man’s dilemma or, you know, what the writer of the letter is observing about how her husband’s operating. Here’s how I think we can size it up. In our lives we have two kinds of relationships. We have the optional and the non-optional. So, the optional are the people we choose to be with, our friends, the people we, you know, marry if we marry, and then the non-optional, you know, it’s our family, right? However we’re related to them, and I think we need to start with those categories in terms of our expectations, and setting the right level of expectation for each category. So, for our friends and our partnerships, our standards should be really high. We have a lot of choice here, you know, and so we should really, for our kids and ourselves, really limit ourselves to people who very much on balance improve our lives significantly and we improve theirs. Okay, you can have a high expectation for that category. Okay, the other category, you kind of get what you get, and one thing, and I don’t feel cynical about this though it sound it, like people don’t change that much. You know unless people really want to change and then they get themselves in therapy , and they’re working really hard at it, especially after age 25 or s, like people are kind of who they are, and so then if we don’t like so much who someone related to is, we have to figure out what we want to do with that, and I’m going to articulate a few options, of course there’s probably a million options, you know, so one is, I mean basically do what this dad is doing. So he’s like, they come, we get through it, I say nothing, they leave. You know, so that’s a strategy. That’s a completely rational, viable, like he’s got his life, he’s got his happy family, you know, he likes the people he lives with, he tolerates the holidays, they go, and they go. I think another strategy would be to push back a little, to say to the people that we’re related to, you know, and of course this would depend on them and how they handle conflict, to say, hey, that’s a really interesting topic. Not for the 10-year-old, you know, and to push back in a respectful, thoughtful way, but that’s assertive. Say, why don’t we talk about that after, you know, Molly’s gone to bed, and just to lay a line down and to push back, and again, you’d have to, you know a lot about how that’s likely to go over, and if it was worth it to do it, and then there are people who find themselves in very challenging relationships with their families, who may feel that if there’s going to be a relationship, there’s going to have to be some pretty clear parameters laid down around behavior, and those parameters are going to have to be enforced. So, it may be the kind of thing where say someone’s, you know, parent comes and get super drunk every Thanksgiving, and it’s ugly.
REENA: Yes. Yes. Yeah.
LISA: And, you know, someone’s bracing for that and just doesn’t want to deal with it and I shouldn’t have to deal with it. They may want to say to the person, I love you, but you drink too much at the holidays, and this year, you know, going forward I’m going to ask you to not, and really being clear, and, you know, then again, four thousand million variables are involved in all this, you know, does it need teeth? If it happens again, we’re not going to be able to spend the holidays together? I mean who knows how much, you know, ultimatum you want to wrap up in this, but if we can uncouple two categories or relationships, like those we choose, those we don’t choose, and then decide how much is worth it to mix it up, that may make it a little easier to approach it all.
REENA: Ah, Lisa this is so much work. I mean I wouldn’t be surprised if some people are like telling their relatives, I have some sort of incurable illness. It’s not COVID, but I might not be able to attend. This is just so much.
LISA: It’ll work out. It is a workout, Reena
REENA: I mean it could potentially be a days long work out. You know? I’m into the 30-minute workouts and goodbye.
REENA: So, if you want to have a pleasant holiday, like what’s the bottom line? Like what do you really have to keep in mind if it’s bare minimals here?
LISA: Okay, well so first of all let’s look lower our expectations here, and I think that what is really hard is culturally there’s all this, yay, it’s the holidays, and so there’s there’s the sense that it should be this extra wonderful, delightful time, and that often doesn’t line up for people with the realities of who’s coming over, and so I think there’s a lot to be said for uncoupling that, right? Like it’s Thanksgiving, it’s going to be a seven-hour work out, and then it’ll be over, right? And I think that can actually make you feel better about the whole thing because if you’re like, oh and it was supposed to be lovely and gorgeous, you know, then it feels that much worse, so one, lower the expectations. Another thing, I love this phrase I heard from someone. This is so funny. The solution to pollution is dilution.
LISA: And so basically, this is someone who when they’re annoying relatives came over invited tons of friends over too.
REENA: Oh wow. If I was a relative that would be so annoying to me, but it worked.
LISA: Yeah, so you have to know how it’s going to play. All of these are calculations. Is it going to be so offensive to the relative that it’s not worth it? You know basically come up with a Tonka truck strategy and a whole bunch of games to play, or is it the kind of relative who actually likes an audience or likes other people, and so saying, oh, and then, you know, so and so’s going to stop by and they’re bringing their kids, and they’re bringing their new puppy, if that’s a strategy that will work, consider it. You know, and especially if you have good friends who you love and you’re like, can you do me a huge favor? We’re going to need a little dilution probably right around six o’clock. That can be a nice thing, and maybe of course not in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner, but maybe earlier in the day or if they’re staying for a long time, you know, something like that might help a little bit.
REENA: There’s just so much to keep in mind, and I just feel like we’re in such a weird place constantly with where we’re at with just life in general that it can be stressful. It can be so stressful. I think just acknowledging that this is a difficult time of year, like you said, even though it’s supposed to be really joyous is important too.
LISA: It is, and I wonder for this letter writer, I mean it’s a big job to host a Thanksgiving, and to, you know, try to keep everybody happy, I mean that’s what I really hear in this letter is this mom is like, I want to have a nice time, but actually I don’t want my kids suffering through this. I hate to watch my husband suffer through this, and so I would say that if there’s anything that I personally feel I’ve learned in the pandemic is you have to kind of craft your own joy. You have to plan it and make it happen, and so I wonder if part of what this letter writer could do, or other people could do if they’re like, oh man here this comes. This is going to stink, right? If they could plant for themselves some really delightful things. Like maybe going on an exercise walk with a friend, you know, which one should be allowed to do even when you have guests over, especially if they’re there for a while. So, maybe on go ahead and schedule something for the morning after thanksgiving or, you know, earlier that day that will be enjoyable and guaranteed and, you know, as we talked about, actually when we were deep in the pandemic, so often having those things on the calendar is its own relief even before you get to the thing.
REENA: You’re right. Yeah.
LISA: And so, you know, what this person is, you know, making mashed potatoes and her in-laws are driving up the wall, she can be like, whoa, wait til my friend hears about this one, right? I mean like still have that release valve to look forward to, plan on, but I would just say there’s a degree of helplessness that this person is up against, but we have to be careful not to feel entirely helpless, right? I mean the nice thing is we’re grown ups, the nice thing was we have some capacity to dictate some aspects of how holidays go down.
REENA: Yeah. That’s great advice. Planning your own joy. That I am going to take with me through the holiday season. And what do you have for us, Lisa, for parenting to go?
LISA: Well, I’m thinking about this dad and I think what’s so hard about being a child, at any age, is that whatever happens with one’s parents it somehow still feels personal in terms of how they act or how they treat you, and just as we’re coaching this letter writer to say to the 13-year-old son, look, it’s not personal. This isn’t about you. I wonder if there’s a way that she could extend that to her partner as well and say, look, I know they’re really hard, but, you know, honey, you’re wonderful, this isn’t personal. Like that’s their deal and they gave me you, and you know, you tell me what you need to get through the holidays and I’ll tell you what I need to get through the holidays, but to remember, especially around the holidays, like so much of this is not personal.
REENA: That’s good. So much as a personal, but we digest as though it is personal, Lisa.
LISA: Yeah, it feels more personal than it is.
REENA: Next week, it’s a topic you say’s exploding among kids. Does my child have OCD?
LISA: Yeah. We see this a lot clinically right now.
REENA: Look for that next week.
LISA: Hey, happy Thanksgiving, Reena.
REENA: Thank you, Lisa. Happy Thanksgiving. I’m actually looking forward to this, and if you have any recipes, let me know.
LISA: You’ll hear from me.
REENA: I love it. See you next week.
LISA: See you next week.