How to have meaningful dinner conversations over the holidays

As family and friends gather over the upcoming holidays, there’s potential for people to encounter some tough conversations based on differing views, beliefs and feelings. So, how should you deal with those conversations?

“The solution is not to drink or lose sleep,” said psychiatrist Jennifer Reid — that will only worsen the interaction.

If you have children, there is an added layer of complexity — they learn how to set boundaries and cope with stressful situations from their parents, said Yesenia Marroquin, a therapist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Here are some tips on what you can do to improve your family interactions over the holidays, while protecting your boundaries:

Having someone you trust to get you out of an awkward conversation or simply to vent with can reduce your anxiety and help keep you grounded during the holidays.

Before the gathering talk to your closest relative about being each other’s support system, and keep tabs through the night. If that is not a possibility, ask a friend if it would be OK for you to text them through the night. That way you still have a safe person to go to if interactions become overwhelming.

Buddies are also important for children because they don’t have the same ability to walk away at will. Marroquin recommends sitting with them ahead of the holiday and identifying two to three people your child feels comfortable going to. Talk to the chosen family members before dinner, so they can help keep an eye out.

Christmas dinner might not be enough to miraculously change someone’s views.

“You can’t control others,” explained Reid, “You can only control yourself.”

Don’t expect that your relatives have suddenly changed or that the holidays will make them more likely to understand your point of view. If racism, homophobia, or deep trauma are pressing issues in your family, consider if it might be better for your mental health to skip dinner.

If the problem is a difference in political views — either being more conservative or liberal than your family — try to find common ground. Think about what your values are, let them know you don’t agree with them, but that this might not be the best time to have this conversation. Try to redirect the interaction toward a family anecdote or a memory that can make you feel connected.

Having something to do can distract people from getting into arguments, and can strengthen family ties. Setting the table together, taking a walk while the turkey finishes up, playing a board game, any kind of activity that involves engaging the family is recommended.

Avoid doing things that don’t require interaction with others like scrolling on your phone or watching television.

For children, the night before the gathering, help them put together a bag with things that will both entertain them and lead to interaction, such as coloring tools and toys. And if you are OK with them being on the phone, help them take breaks to interact with people.

It can be hard, but it’s important to remember that family gatherings are prone to something not working out, someone getting upset, or something going unplanned. The mantra is “it’s OK if the decorations aren’t perfect or the meal isn’t perfect, the main point is connection,” said Reid.

Don’t be active, be proactive. Meaning, don’t burn yourself trying to be a one-man orchestra, delegate. This can help ease some of the pressure. They might not do it exactly as you will have. But, according to Reid, acknowledging the chaos that comes with family gatherings can really improve your experience.

» READ MORE: What is seasonal affective disorder? Symptoms, causes and how to treat it.

Families have different dynamics, but for people of color, it can be particularly difficult to tell an elder relative that you feel disrespected, call out racism and colorism, or cut ties altogether.

If that is happening within your family — and skipping the holiday gathering isn’t an option — Reid recommends taking a moment beforehand to prepare yourself.

Set your expectations, but be realistic. Think of ways to redirect the conversation if you need to. This can help you explore your boundaries and have an idea of what you could say beforehand, so the interaction doesn’t escalate.

In some cultures, hugs and kisses are the preferred way to greet people, failing to do so can be perceived as disrespectful. This can be tricky when there are children involved.

If you are raising your child with a different concept of personal space than the one you grew up with, remind your child that they have agency over their body and are allowed to say no.

“Follow their lead on this,” Marroquin said.

Try to talk to your relatives beforehand, acknowledge how important this is for your culture, but reiterate why this matters to you and your child, and present alternatives. Maybe the child doesn’t hug as a greeting, but they will feel comfortable with a high-five or a “hi.”

When you are dealing with an anxiety disorder or depression, things can feel much more difficult and take twice the energy. “Self-compassion is key,” said Reid.

Talk to your therapist about small achievable goals you can start working on before the holiday dinner to reduce your anxiety, and strategize on what to do if panic attacks arise.

In the moment, peace breathing can help. Instead of trying to take deep breaths, focus on your natural breathing rhythm and slowly exhale. Taking a 5-minute break in the bathroom or a less populated part of the house can help. Days before the dinner you can start by talking to a family member you trust, hop on a phone call, tell them how you feel, that way you are achieving small goals toward connecting with them before having the motivation to go to dinner.

For caregivers of children with anxiety or depression, Marroquin recommends keeping in mind that your role is not fixing the emotion, but rather acknowledging, validating, and recognizing how challenging this must be for them.

“Let them know you will get through this together,” she adds and help them pack things that make them feel comfortable and safe like their favorite book, headphones, or stuffed animal.

Having an eating disorder can really suck the merry out of a holiday meal, and recovery is a work in progress not aided by bystanders’ intrusive comments. So what can you do?

If you are in treatment, Reid recommends talking to your team to see what strategies can work best based on your family dynamics. But if you are still looking for a specialist, or struggling undiagnosed — people of color, LGBTQ+, and people in larger bodies are more likely to go undiagnosed due to medical bias — you can:

  • Remember to be compassionate with yourself.

  • Set boundaries. Even if they are crossed, establishing them can make you feel “a little bit back in control,” said Reid.

  • Give yourself a moment to feel calm, listen to music, meditate, and process your feelings.

  • If eating becomes difficult, try to connect with your family during a portion of the meal.

If you have a child with an ED, Marroquin recommends talking to their therapist and nutritionist to get coaching on how to make this easier for them, talk to your guest beforehand about what they shouldn’t tell your child, and make them aware of what might be triggering.

When it comes to eating disorders some comments can be triggering:

Less than 6% of people with an ED are underweight. Refrain from talking about anyone’s body.

✔️ Check in to see how they are feeling.

❌ Don’t stare at them while they eat or comment on how much or how little food is on their plate or your plate.

❌ Don’t talk about calories, diets, or how much exercise you will do after the holidays.

❌ Don’t make fun of them for not eating something, it might be a fear food.

Sometimes, even if you have a supportive family, people can ask inappropriate questions or make uneducated statements, you don’t owe them an answer. If you follow Reids and Marroquin’s advice about setting up a support system, this is your buddy’s time to shine.

If you previously communicated your boundaries and they continue to cross them, you can try walking away from time to time to have some alone time. But, it’s up to you to decide if leaving might be best. This can be especially hard when it comes to LGBTQ+ children. Talk to them about how they feel, validate their emotions, and explain why this might be the best choice.

After it’s all set and done, make sure to book a time to recharge the following day. Marie Kondo yourself by doing things that bring you joy, journal, catch up with friends, sit with yourself or simply nap.