My friend “Molly” once asked me, “How can I get my teens to be willing to stay at the table during our Thanksgiving dinner?”
I asked her, “Why do they want to leave?”
Molly said slowly, “Well, I guess they get upset by the putdown jokes. And the rude advice. And the stressful arguments.” Then she thought for a moment and sighed, “Oh, dear, what a terrible recipe for having a nice dinner. I don’t blame my kids for wanting to escape!”
Unlike me, Molly is an excellent cook. She would never accidentally give someone salt when they asked for sugar for their tea. Or leave even a little sand in the salad. She miraculously creates wonderful meals, where everything looks beautiful, tastes amazing, and is all ready at the same time. And she realized that spoiling these meals with unpleasant comments was like an awful old family recipe.
Molly decided that their family needed to take charge of their conversation recipe just like she has always taken charge of the food preparation. Because people are somewhat more complicated than food, we decided on two questions she would discuss with her family ahead of time.
1. Why are we are getting together? Enjoyment of family and friends? Making and sharing special meals as a holiday tradition? How well does this work if people are consumed with their devices or making each other miserable?
2. How can we make our time together fun instead of awful? Putdown jokes, rude advice, stressful arguments, long boring monologues, constant texting, and unwanted affection are not going to improve the meal. Accept that people acting this way usually do not see themselves as being hurtful, rude, boring, disengaged, argumentative, or intrusive. They probably have good intentions and see themselves as being funny, informed, wise, helpful, affectionate, connected, and also skilled and passionate debaters. And, like everyone, they are very likely doing what they do for reasons that make sense to them. We can be sympathetic to their probable wishes for connection, safety, and belonging, even if we detest how they are going about it.
Instead of working to get agreement about intentions and perceptions, make agreements in advance about boundaries around behavior. For example, you might agree on a boundary that we don’t make jokes about identity such as race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, or body size, even if some people think they are funny. You might make an agreement that if someone says “No, thanks!” to a hug or kiss, the answer will be, “Thanks for speaking up!”
Be honest with yourself about family members who have a track record of behavior that causes stress and upset. Make a plan for preventing the problem instead of suffering through it. This can include distraction and teamwork.
One couple we know had a secret signal that only the two of them knew – it meant, “one of our fathers has trapped someone in a corner and is lecturing them. We need to intervene with compassion and kindness NOW.” Their fathers did not know about this strategy. Family gatherings got much more pleasant after they started using it!
Be honest about your own bad habits and ask for help in noticing and changing them. Make an agreement about use of devices, such as everyone turning them off and putting them inside a special basket tucked away during the main meal.
Molly and I also discussed three strategies she could rehearse with her kids, with the agreement that she would support them in using these and try to use them herself.
1. Think First and use our Mouth Closed Power. Learning that we can think one thing and say or do something else is an essential life skill. We might think that Uncle Fred’s nose looks shiny but we don’t need to say so. Agree to try to follow this wise advice that is often attributed to Socrates or another ancient philosopher: “Before you speak, ask yourself: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?”
2. Interrupt and Change the Subject. Unfortunately, not everyone at the table will follow the same rules about respectful and mutually-enjoyable conversation. Instead of using the ineffective Wishing Technique by hoping this won’t happen this time, we can practice with kids how to interrupt and change the subject.
Tell them to imagine that you are starting to make unpleasant jokes, give rude advice, get into an argument, discuss how much or little they eat, or deliver non-stop monologues. Say continuously with a lot of energy, “Blah! Blah! Blah. Blah! Blah! Blah. Blah! Blah! Blah.” Coach them to interrupt cheerfully and persistently at the first “Blah” by saying, “Excuse me!” And then to follow up with a change of subject such as, “I heard you met some very funny people on your vacation in Italy.”
Give kids practice in persisting. Act hurt and say, “I was just making a joke.” Or, “But this is for your own good.” Or, “That’s rude. You interrupted me.” Or, “I am disappointed in you.”
Coach them to persist with a respectful and clear reply, such as, “Thank you for your concern. And I don’t want advice right now.” Or, “I understand. And that’s not funny to me.” Or, “I don’t mean to be rude, but that’s just too much information for me.” Or, “Let’s agree to disagree and talk about something else.”
3. Do your best not to take things personally when someone’s words, gestures, sighs, or grimaces are hurtful to you, don’t assume that this means there is anything wrong with you. Often, people behave unkindly because they have bad habits, poor skills, mental health problems, or other issues. Protect your feelings and disengage if changing the subject doesn’t work. As soon as you can, talk over what happened with an adult you trust both to get support and to see if there is something useful you can learn.
As we enter the holiday season, fraught with opportunities for awful family emotional “recipes”, please use our free resources to help your family have a less stressful, more joyful holiday:
- 8 Emotional Safety Techniques for Managing Triggers
- How to Make Family Gatherings Great Instead of Awful
- Advocating With Family Members for Your Kids
- Holiday Boundaries: Protecting Children’s Emotional Safety and Helping Others Do the Same
Finally, on Thanksgiving Eve here in the United States, I want to express my gratitude for the many ways you further our shared commitment of working together to create cultures of safety, respect, and kindness for everyone, everywhere. Whether you give a suggestion, practice a skill, share through social media, provide expertise, or make a contribution – every action you take is making a great difference to Kidpower and is deeply appreciated.
Published: November 22, 2017 | Last Updated: November 22, 2017