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Home For The Holidays - Handling Family Dynamics

November 20, 2012 1:01 p.m.


David Peters, Family therapist with offices in Mission Valley

Related Story: Home For The Holidays - Handling Family Dynamics


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Families sometimes have to confront traumatic event when is they gather for the holidays. But family gatherings often create trauma on their own! There are old resentments, unresolved conflicts, and those old standbys, politics and religion that can cause big problems. Can give us some tips on navigating peaceful holiday dinners and get-togethers, David Peters, family therapist with offices in Missions Valley. Welcome back to the program!

PETERS: Always good to share with you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: If there has been some kind of life-changing event within the family during the last year, a death, a grave illness, some kind of tragedy, how do you think family members should prepare for the holidays?

PETERS: Definitely you phrased it correctly: Preparing before is really, really important. Unfortunately illness and death don't respect our holiday schedule. And we're just as likely to lose someone or have lost someone during a holiday season or just before as any other month. And if we have a year ago or less than a year ago lost a loved one. A husband, father, mother, grandfather or child, or that person is incarcerated or severely ill, it's important for us to prepare ahead of time so everybody can be comfortable and enjoy themselves anyway. We have to accept that it's okay to enjoy ourselves in maybe a more rev rant way but still a loving way during a holiday.

CAVANAUGH: So some communication beforehand?

PETERS: Definitely some communication beforehand. Let's just say that if there's a death in the family that's recent, and it's a father or mother, a grandparent who's usually there at the table with us for Thanksgiving to be able to agree in casual conversation days before that, you know, let's not forget who's not going to be with us. Let's not pretend it hasn't happened. Let's be able to talk about her or him and be able to admit that we miss them or that sort of thing. Remember there's often children at the table. And children are learning, is it okay to be real? Is it okay to say what we really think? And if the child is able to express at the table, oh, I miss grandma, well, then you're healthy! They're being real. And to say, well, I do also. And to have a fond memory, even if there's some tears, that allows for a spiritual celebration, to be real and authentic with your emotions about the love and the loss that you're feeling.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Well, the usual challenges families face around the holiday table are not dramatic, but they can be devastating if families don't get along. Why are family events like Thanksgiving and holiday dinners often tense and volatile?

PETERS: Well, primarily because we so badly want them to be wonderful! Whenever you try to force joyfulness in the family, you're creating something that's kind of neurotic because it's unnatural. Many families have their own give and take and flow in and out of conflict. And agent some of us come from families that resemble the Brady bunch, and others just have not. Or we'll see the Cosby family to not date myself. But sometimes there's a problem inlaw, a sibling whom we've never gotten along with. And then there's the challenge of what if there's another argument like last year? We have a critical challenge now because we're just through with an election in which the nation was sharply divided. And it's important to remember that politics can be set aside if we agree to and remember what's most important. Loving one another and sharing and celebrating together has to be more important than politics. And you're not going to solve anything politically at that table at all! So it's okay for someone in the family to initiate an agreement that says, hey, we're getting together, I love you, let's not talk politics today. Let's just let it go. Let's talk about everything but. Because I want to enjoy being with you, I want to enjoy sharing with you, can we have that agreement so we can really enjoy one another? In other words, invite them into that agreement. It could backfire if you say look, I don't want to hear any of your politics at the table!


PETERS: Then you're in a rejecting mode, and that person is more likely to speak up. And it can be that you might be sharing the Thanksgiving with another family who frequently talks politics in ways that you're in sharp disagreement with, then it might be incumbent upon you to hold still and be silent and patient and be calming yourself even though you have sharp disagreements with what's being said, and to engage people anyway. It's really a decision each. Us has to make.

CAVANAUGH: I believe that you say people should make a conscious choice before getting together, that they're going to remain focused on being thankful and joyous during the holidays. So you mean not just a family together making a conscious choice, but each individual member of that family saying, look, I'm not going to let this get to me!

PETERS: Definitely so. Sometimes we have family members who just aren't going to agree to what we're hoping for. Someone can just flat-out declare in front of everybody, I'm so glad or so angry about, or can you believe how horrible this is, and then the decision is the individual decision. Do I have to respond now? And if it's a political issue, none of that is going to be resolved today. I'm just going to not respond and engage in another topic right here.

CAVANAUGH: Movies and comedians get a lot of laughs out of these troubles. But they really can do damage.

PETERS: Oh, terrible damage! Comedy is when we talk tragedy and twist it in a way that is familiar so we can get a tickle out of it. What is funny to us is often reflective of what is tragic for us. And so, yeah, it really is a serious issue. People can be burnt. People can go home very angry after a holiday. And you've literally destroyed the spiritual dimension out of it. And I say spiritual even for those who are nonreligious to get-together for the purpose of giving thanks is a spiritual activity. It's something that is about reverence and about reaching out to one another and purposefully, consciously sharing. And it's not just about food and football. And I really encourage families even if they're not prone to arguments to remember it's not just about food and football, you know? To be able to have some discussion in the family about what their grateful for because that's what builds families and relationships. To be able to consciously talk about what matters most to them. And if you're able and lucky enough to do that with the family of loved ones you have, it's an incredible blessing. And really a wonderful thing for raising your children.

CAVANAUGH: Does it help if you try to diffuse a situation at the table or a gathering that's starting up between two of your relatives or two people? Or should you just stay out of it. It

PETERS: Oh, I think it's essential for the host or hostes to deflect it as early as possible F. They can see the tensions brewing or oh, aunt so and so and uncle so-and-so are about to argue as usual, to boldly move forward and say this is a holiday table, I love you all, let's enjoy this. And immediately shift the topic on the spot. I think if you reach out with a warm voice but also a firmness, if it's your table that you're hosting, you can deflect that and move people forward. Sometimes it's not your table.


PETERS: And sometimes the host is part of the problem, and it's not your territory, so you may be one to sit quiet and wait through or in the moment you sense it's okay to just step aside in conversation with a different topic. But I think it is important if it's your home, it is okay to say let's be warm, let's talk about wonderful things here. We can debate those issues some other time.

CAVANAUGH: Are there sometimes maybe you should just avoid certain gatherings or certain family members?

PETERS: Well, unfortunately there are some. But I usually urge people do your best to show up, do your best to be there and be present and be your best self. But there are occasions where an environment is so toxic and unheadlight, yeah, it may be better to not be there. If someone is an active, reckless alcoholic who always ruins the party, it might not be healthy to be there or to bring your children there, if you know, wow, the last two times we went, it ended up in such an angry horrible time that it just wasn't healthy for us, it's okay to step aside if you really are confident that this is going to be painful. There's no reason we have to show up for a painful event. We can step aside and say, no, we're going to celebrate in a healthy way, in a more warm and loving way and not get involved in that. But those are usually the minority cases. Will

CAVANAUGH: It would seem to make sense from what you're saying, if you know you usually have a difficult time to make this conscious choice to try to go and see whether making that choice make a difference in the way you enJoyce the experience.

PETERS: Exactly. If you're saying to your parents can we not talk politics this time because last time it went so poorly, or can we not talk about so-and-so's unemployment, or their drug issue or something Kwe just put that aside, and someone says no, I'm not going to pretend, and they're already angry, it might be okay to say, you know, I really want to be in a loving place for Thanksgiving. And so I don't think I'm going to be able to show. If it already looks like there's a full disagreement, a refusal to even try. But most people will try. Most people will, if we reach out warmly and say I want to enjoy my time with you, I love you, I want to be with you. Can we put this stuff aside for now and just enjoy one another, most people respond.

CAVANAUGH: If something does go wrong at a holiday family gathering, there is a big fight, somebody has too much to drink, how should people begin patching it up?

PETERS: Well, sometimes it spins so far out of control it can be better just to leave earlier than normal and patch things up the next day if things have spun out of control.

CAVANAUGH: That's kind of what I meant.

PETERS: Others are arguing in ways that you just can't stop them. You can't enforce peace upon people who don't want peace. But definitely the very next day make a phone call, and say I felt terrible about leaving, but I want to know that I love you, and I wish you the best, it was just so uncomfortable for us, we had to leave early. It's important to move quickly on it. Of the longer you wait and have the awkward silence, the more time there is for people to misinterpret the silence and begin building animosity in their head. And you can have a split that lasts for years after that!

CAVANAUGH: A lot of families it would seem to me, if they're not arguing, they don't have much to talk about!


PETERS: Oh, yes! There are some. Not all of us are blessed with a family that can just enjoy one another! And if arguing is a normal part of the family, there's the measure of well, is it healthy for me to be there? There's an individual choice. Sometimes because of cultural style, there's heated discussions but everybody loves one another and ends with hugging. Other times there's heated discussion and people leave with bad feelings. If you know once again, you're going to be there with bad feelings, why subject yourself to that?

CAVANAUGH: I've got to end it there. Happy Thanksgiving, David!

PETERS: Happy Thanksgiving to you, Maureen, and all the listeners!