How to avoid a Thanksgiving family meltdown? University of Iowa therapist has some tips

Jacob Priest, an assistant professor of couples and family therapy at the University of Iowa, is seen Nov. 13 in Iowa Ci
Jacob Priest, an assistant professor of couples and family therapy at the University of Iowa, is seen Nov. 13 in Iowa City. (B.A. Morelli/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Holiday season is around the corner, which for many means lots of quality time with family and some potential pitfalls.

Between impeachment hearings, caucus season, inappropriate comments and questions about why someone isn’t married yet, plenty of topics exist to test the patience of even the most loving families. The Gazette interviewed an expert about strategies to improve your chances of a successful holiday.

Jacob Priest is an assistant professor of couples and family therapy at the University of Iowa. He is director of the UI LGBTQ counseling clinic, has a private practice in Iowa City and has a podcast called “Attached” with faculty at the University of Tennessee and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School.

Q: Why can family gatherings be so stressful and challenging?

A: Family relationships are very complicated and they exist for long periods of time, so I think one reason is when you go spend time with your family, you feel the need to revert to some of those old roles. If you’re an adult with your own kids, but you’re going to see your parents, your relationship with your parents mimics that with you and your kids. You’re kind of stuck in the middle. Are you a parent at this time or are you like a kid? So tension can be there. Also, nobody gets family relationships right all the time. So even the best parents, even the best siblings, even the best grandparents are going to mess up, and that hurts. We hold on to those things. When we have these experiences where there’s a lot of time together, that can bring up some of the past injuries.

Q: How do you approach political topics?

A: We have research that suggests people have lost friendships, they have lost marriages and really strained family relationships because of politics. So politics can be a difficult conversation to navigate at big family gatherings. I think the first rule, first and foremost, is don’t talk about it at the dinner table. If grandma and grandpa bring it up, say, “Hey, I’d love to talk with you about that, but should we wait until we have a better time where it can just be you and I?” Those types of conversations can be really meaningful, but if you have 10 to 12 people involved in them, it’s not going to be a conversation, it’s going to be, “Well, this is what I think. Am I right or am I not right?” If you can find some space to sit down and talk one on one, it allows you to listen. It allows you to ask questions.

Q: Should alcohol be avoided during the holidays?

A: It depends on what the alcohol is being used for. If you are drinking just to numb out so you don’t have to worry (about) family members, it’s not a good idea. But I think that if you’re responsible, and not using it to a point where you’re going to say things you may regret, it can be a fun way to unwind and connect with people who are important to you.

Q: How should you handle inappropriate comments?

A: When it comes to family where people are being racist, homophobic, it’s important to do two things. It’s always important to be kind, but kindness also requires accountability. If your uncle is saying something sexist and inappropriate, say something like, “Hey, I love you — if this is true — I appreciate all the support you’ve given me, but I don’t put up with those kind of remarks about other people.” I think there can be this tendency not to want to rock the boat. But, let’s say you have a family member who says something really homophobic. It may be that you have a niece or nephew or a cousin, or sibling, who potentially hasn’t come out yet, and if you don’t say anything, and stand up for that, it may be like, “OK, these people are all buying into these ideas.” So it may be as simple as, “Hey, I don’t agree with that, and I really appreciate if you wouldn’t talk like that around me.” You’re not attacking the person, you’re just shutting down and holding people accountable for the type of remarks they’re making, and potentially creating a safe space for people in your family to be themselves.

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