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Need to Take a Therapist to Family Dinner this Holiday?

Published by Herman Bottoms

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If your therapist is not available, here is a crutch to help you get through. Three steps towards conflict resolution during family dinners and holidays.

Many families have had conflict during the winter holiday season. It normally starts with Thanksgiving dinner and can go through the New Year celebrations, allowing for several disruptions during that time of year that we want to be closer to family.

Sometimes families get family therapy, more often individuals try to work through their conflict with family members with a therapist. This approach works in that it potentially changes how a client reacts to the key personalities in their life. Therapists can analyze the family dynamics and come up with theories about why your family gets in to conflict on any particular holiday. It is not unusual for a client in therapy to ask the therapist to come along with them to their next family get-together. Of course, many therapists do not mind joint sessions if there is something to be gained. During most of the year this is a viable option, but there may be resistance during family holiday celebrations.

The truth is most therapists do not want to go to holiday dinner with a client’s family, because they know better. The therapist is keenly aware that holidays are a sophisticated dance of tradition, expectations, and the ‘ghosts’ of previous holiday celebrations. Some therapists have trouble navigating their own family dinners during the holidays, much less the added pressure of strangers and client expectation.

Instead of describing empirical evidence of how average families deal with conflict in therapy, let’s pull from the gut level for the following holiday advice on the beginnings of conflict resolution. Three steps involved in this quick and dirty shortcut with no analysis needed because your emotional reaction will be based on past experience. Experience means that learning has taken place that can be leveraged – kind of like common sense – yet better.

‘Don’t Stoop to Their Level’

Don’t do the things that you accuse your family of doing. You may get insulted for not joining in the behaviors that create conflict, but that is less stressful than losing control. For example, if dad’s drunk on holidays then I advise not joining him in the drinking. Say mother goes in to a tirade during a meal, the client cannot go there with her. Let brother show off all he wants, it doesn’t mean that any one else has to. This sounds easy yet is difficult because we tend to get drawn in; be alert.

Don’t Repeat Last Year’s Performance

If a client can outline to me what will happen at a holiday family dinner as if it were a Broadway play, then not only does the client know what is about to happen, but they also know which reaction it will create within. Use that knowledge to dodge the parts of last year’s show that need to be edited. If you need help if figuring out how to react differently then ask your friends what they would do; or, as some of my clients have done: think about what your therapist would do.

Create a Mantra

Many therapists work on mantras, brief internal messages you can tell yourself at any time needed, with their clients. Holiday time is a wonderful rehearsal for those mantras. For example, get rid of ‘this sucks,’ and try ‘I’ve made it through another hour.’ Other holiday favorites include:

● I’m not who they portray me to be

● I’m successful for different reasons

● I’m stronger, I’m kinder

● I can be my own person

Why Go to Family Dinner at All?

Well, many people don’t, frankly, and that is an alternative. Most clients try to participate despite old traumas resurfacing as a bridge to a different relationship with their family. Kind of like snow, most family conflicts need to melt away over the course of a few meals and holidays. Eventually a healthier family interaction may take place, and then the joys of family holiday celebrations can be regained or developed. Does that always happen? No, but then you have the advice herein to fall back on to get through those holiday family dinners if you want to continue to try.

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