Black Sheep: The Holidays

The nights are getting longer and the temperatures are dropping.  Many of our thoughts are turning to turkey and pumpkin pies.  Some of those thoughts, though, are dreading the inevitable tension of dealing with that relative at the family holiday gatherings.  Just about all of us have that one family member who says something (or several somethings) every year that makes us cringe.  Sometimes we consider just not inviting them to Thanksgiving dinner this year.  “but they’re family,” we usually decide, so we gird ourselves and wait for the stuffing to hit the fan.  Sound familiar?  Here are some tips for making the most of your time together.

Remember what it means to be a family.  It goes beyond guilt-driven invitations to a meal.  The healthiest and happiest families strike a balance between accepting individuality and providing connection.  Typically, we think about this balance as children become teenagers and young adults and start pushing their boundaries out into new areas.  It doesn’t stop there, though.  Certainly, like is a lot easier if you and your family members agree on the important issues in like – religion, politics, child-rearing, and which sports team is the best.  Most families don’t have such a high degree of similarity. Find ways to show that connection to your outcast family member.  It will help you and them feel more comfortable. We all just want to be accepted. This is harder than it sounds, of course, which brings me to:

Show unconditional positive regard. The famous Humanistic Psychologist Car Rogers stressed the importance that families who love and acceptance to one another with no strings attached. He believed that a lack of positive regard from our families was the largest contributor to mental illness. When we don’t experience positive regard, many of us seek attention in any other way we can get it. Frequently, that’s done by getting others riled up. Maybe by extolling the virtues of that fringe political candidate, by passive-aggressively judging the choices that the new parents are making, or by going on and on about how the harry Potter books were OK, but the movies were much better (this last one is the most dangerous in my house). Admittedly, it can be difficult to show positive regard for the family member who makes us anxious. One way to be successful is to focus on something positive or likeable about the person, and talk about that. Everybody has redeeming qualities or interests that are shared with other family members. If conversation focuses on those things, the others tend not to come up.

Try to understand their point of view. This doesn’t mean you have to agree or give up your own point of view. You don’t even really need to talk about it, thought that is a bonus. If you can see why  your family member believes the seemingly ridiculous things they believe, it will help you be more accepting of them. It’s a rare person who holds a belief for the sole reason of ticking somebody else off. What life experiences has this person had that led them to this belief? How does this belief make sense from their point of view? If you can answer these questions honestly and without judgement, you’ll have made great strides in providing the connection and positive regard I mentioned earlier.

Getting along always sounds much easier than it really is. chances are, despite your best efforts, moments of tension and argument will arise. When this happens, one of the most important strategies to remember is to make sure you argue with the ides, not the person. It’s all too easy for a disagreement to escalate into insults, accusations of stupidity, and mashed potato-slinging. If you can stay focused on the topic, you might actually increase connections even while disagreeing. By doing this, I’ve had great discussion with family members who disagree with me on politics, gun control, and who was the best Batman (it’s Micheal Keaton, of course).

The struggle many family members face is moving from ostracizing the black sheep to accepting a unique family member is a fear to go first. We are sometimes trained to believe that whoever makes the first move toward civility has admitted that they are somehow “wrong.” Don’t fall into this trap. Nobody has to be “right” or “wrong,” just accepting of differences. If you can do that, your whole family may have more to be thankful for this year.


Check out January’s blog for the continuation of the executive functioning series.

Warm Wishes,
Matthew Mutchler, Ph.D

Pennsylvania licensed Marriage and Family therapist.

Specializing in working with couples, families and individuals working through life transitions, relationships and stress/anxiety.

Assistant Professor of Counseling Psychology at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, PA.

Center For Psychology & Counseling