Oh no, is Uncle Ned or Aunt Sue brewing trouble and spewing racial obscenities again? If you find your beloved relatives acting like feral children, there is a solution. Tina Tessina, Ph.D, psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage offers her tips.
- Treat your family like they are someone else’s family. That’s right, pretend you don’t know them all that well. If you were at a social gathering with someone else’s family and a spat broke out, you wouldn’t get upset; you’d be polite and try to deflect things. “Learn to treat troublesome family members as members of someone else’s family – with whom you’d not react to obnoxious things, but just politely ignore what they’re doing or saying, and maintain a pleasant demeanor,” advised Tessina. Which means: don’t add fuel to the fire, don’t react to rude or insensitive comments in a childish or emotional manner – and always set a good example for everyone else by staying above the fray.
- End arguments by changing the subject and giving relatives time outs. For example, Tessina presents the following scenario: “If Aunt Sue and her sister get into an argument, the host or hostess should pointedly change the subject. Say, “Enough of that, let’s talk about what we’re thankful for.” If Grandma criticizes your parenting style, simply say “thanks for the advice.” And then move on.
- Curb out-of-control drinking by arranging for the alcohol to be controlled by someone who can politely tell Ned when he’s had enough, and can serve him a soft drink or cup of coffee instead. Even better: cut back on everyone’s alcohol consumption by either serving limited amounts, or no alcohol at all.
- Give people something to do, like photo albums to look at, a tree to decorate, or puzzles to put together. “If you ask everyone to bring something like a favorite family picture, an ornament for the tree, one flower to add to an impromptu arrangement or a memento of your travels, these items can be a much safer topic of conversation,” said Tessina. It’s not that much different than redirecting toddlers who are prone to tantrums or unruly kids who immediately calm down once they get engrossed in a craft activity.
- Establish a plan with your spouse, especially if the problems stem from (insert clearing of throat here) his or her side of the family. If your partner’s family members are tough to deal with, talk in advance about what to do and establish a plan. Get a clear agreement with your spouse about the boundaries you’re going to set with his/her parents or surly siblings. “The relationship with in-laws and family members can be a very big factor,” said Tessina. “Interestingly enough, problems can come up if the husband feels his wife is too close to his family, as well as if the wife and in-laws don’t get along.” So talk this one over and figure it out.
- Put people in “adult time-outs” if they behave badly or pressure you. No, this doesn’t mean you need to force your father-in-law to sit in the naughty chair and face the wall, but you can leave the room for extended periods or send him out to build a snowman with the grandkids. Tessina’s method means that you withdraw to be extremely polite but distant relating – in other words, no personal interchanges, but no rudeness, either.
- Be a grownup at all times and don’t stoop down to anyone’s level of bad behavior. If this means you must occasionally treat your relatives like misbehaving children, so be it. “Don’t let them drag you into bad behavior of your own,” said Tessina.
How do you handle unruly relatives?