Mental preparation for contentious holiday gatherings


NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – As we prepare to gather around the Thanksgiving table, fierce differences of opinions in politics, COVID-19 masking and vaccinations, and gender identity might make you feel anxious to share a meal with the ones you love. However, you can walk into the holiday prepared, and that preparation might just put your mind at ease.

“We really do need to be able to speak with each other honestly and openly than we have ever before. In this particular point in our lives, I think we do need to be much more open with each other than previous holidays, because our lives really are very different,” said Marvetta Greene Price, a licensed clinical social worker for Thriveworks.

Thriveworks offers online counseling. Greene Price is based in Norfolk. She says having important conversations with family is a good idea, but there may need to be guidelines before you talk over turkey.

“Agree that they will not discuss politics, that they will not discuss the hot button topics, and instead substitute that discussion for other activities such as playing games, such as volunteering for part of the day, and if they do decide to have those discussions, someone could agree to serve as somewhat of a moderator so that they can kind of bring people’s level of enthusiasm, and sometimes hostility, down. So, it would be helpful for one or two people to agree to say, ‘Hey, we’ll be the moderators of the discussion. If it starts to get out of hand, or if we feel that the words used are inappropriate, or hurtful to other people, we will step in’ and either have people end the discussion or remind people that we agreed to be respectful.”

For some families talking politics, and hot button issues is a tradition.

“They feel very comfortable about it. They already have their impromptu guidelines on how they conduct those discussions, and that’s often the time where they do ask the kids to go in another room and play, or they do have those discussions away from children and youth out of respect for them, because when kids hear people yelling, arguing, shouting, even if they don’t know what’s being said, emotionally they kind of absorb it like a sponge. So, I feel like those families who are able to do that, do it, but they are also respectful about how they do it, and they probably have some unspoken ground rules. They probably also have that person in the family who says, ‘Hey! Wait! You’re going too far. Let’s pull it back,'” said Greene Price.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for people where there is a lot of history, a lot of hurt feelings, a lot of history of family disfunction, divorces, separations. It may not be healthy for that particular family because they already have a lot of wounds. They already have a lot of bad memories, a lot of hurt, and those types of discussions might bring those wounds back up to the surface, and it would be very unhealthy for everyone involved.”

If you are caught in a discussion that makes you uncomfortable, Green Price offers this advice, “It’s up to the person, or individual, to kind of post their own boundaries. So, if people are going to discuss any topics that they wish, we can choose to remain true to our own beliefs, true to our own philosophies, and step back from the conversation, not participate in the conversation, or listen, but respond and not react. You can take a deep breath. You can remove yourself from the area. If you cannot remove yourself from the area, you can remain silent, but you do not have to participate.”

There are important warning signs that a conversation is not good for your mental wellbeing.

“If you do feel like your heart’s pounding, butterflies are in your stomach, you’re sweating, you’re tense, that is really a clue to at least remove yourself from the situation, which could be removing yourself from the room, going outside for a breath of fresh air, speaking with another family member, but it’s definitely appropriate to remove yourself from the situation if you feel that you’re having a physiological response to what’s being said,” said Greene Price.

It can be very hard to remain calm when someone is attacking your beliefs or values, so you may need to learn some new coping mechanisms.

“I think that an individual, or family, but specifically an individual can go and seek out assistance from a mental health professional that can help them practice coping skills, that can help them be assertive, teach them assertiveness, that can help them practice grounding, deep breathing, and other interventions that can get them through the holidays. So, they don’t have to feel like, ‘Hey I can’t accept this invitation. I don’t want to be around my family because they make me feel tense. They make me feel nervous. I get angry.’ Where a therapist could help a person work through those feelings, practice new skills so they could feel much more confident about stepping into a family dinner, Thanksgiving, or Christmas for that matter. If people would like to learn how to respond differently, there’s definitely help there.”

However, in some cases, Green Price says it may be best to just decline that dinner invitation.

“I think if a person knows that they get angry quickly, if they know that they might not be able to control how they respond, or what they say, I think that might be a clue that they may need to decline the invitation if they feel like they may become out of control. If people know that there’s going to be alcohol or drugs served or used during that gathering, that might be another clue that they should probably decline, because we know alcohol and drugs actually make things worse. People really forget who they are and lose their moral compass, lose their ability to make good judgement about what’s being said, lose their ability to act appropriately. If you have children and youth around, you really don’t want them to experience any of that. You don’t want them to see it. You don’t want them to hear it.”

No matter what, your mental wellness, and that of those in your household, should be top of mind before you dig in.

“We do want to be with our family. We just have to figure out a way to do it where people are respectful of each other, and hopefully loving and compassionate.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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