How to navigate uncomfortable questions during the holidays

November 19, 2021
"Especially during times that can be really tough for a lot of folks... it's so important to underscore the importance of setting boundaries, and that it's OK to focus on you," says Dr. Benjamin F. Miller.
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We’ve all been there – ready to take a bite of our tasty holiday meal when it hits: a dreaded question from a family member across the table.

“Are you dating anyone yet?”

“When are going to have kids?”

“Do you really need that second slice of pie?”

While there’s often an expectation of joy, love and togetherness during the holiday season, for many families “holidays are much more complicated” and can “highlight complex family dynamics,” says Liz Kelly, a licensed clinical social worker with Talkspace.

Questions that span from uncomfortable to downright invasive can make an already difficult time even more challenging.

“Oftentimes relatives or loved ones, they’re coming from a place of curiosity or they want to connect, but they don’t really consider the context and they don’t really consider what that question might trigger.”

For example, when a parent asks, “When can I expect more grandkids?” They may be asking someone struggling with infertility.

“(Their) motivation may not be negative or bad, but the question itself is really painful,” Kelly says.

Luckily, there are ways to get through your holiday dinner with more ease. We spoke to experts to find out how to prepare for and navigate those awkward conversations.

Mentally prepare for unwanted questions

Start by preparing yourself mentally ahead of the event. This includes getting your mind in the right place through self-care, Kelly suggests.

“Make sure you’re rested, make sure you maybe have a chance to get some physical activity (or) to go outside. Just so you’re not entering the family events feeling already feel defeated.”

It can also help to “be aware of those situations or those topics that might make you uncomfortable,” suggests Dr. Benjamin F. Miller, a clinical psychologist and president of Well Being Trust foundation. You can think through what your responses might be ahead of time.

You can also get awkward conversations out of the way ahead of time.

For example, if COVID-19 vaccines are a point of conflict in your family, try inquiring about vaccination statuses in advance so you “don’t have to deal with the awkwardness in the moment,” Kelly says.

Decide how to respond within your comfort zone

Kelly says remember, “you don’t owe anyone any information,” and you should only “share whatever you feel comfortable sharing.”

“You don’t have to feel obligated to answer that question in great detail,” she says. “My suggestion is to keep it simple. Say something like, ‘I appreciate your interest in my love life, but let’s talk about something more interesting.'”

Changing the subject to another topic or asking questions is another way to shift the subject to something else.

“(Ask) your nosy aunt about her memories or a favorite recipe that she makes,” she suggests.

This tactic can be especially useful for someone struggling with an eating disorder, explains Chelsea Kronengold, communications lead at the National Eating Disorders Association.

“Comments about someone’s appearance or the amount of food they are not consuming can always be harmful and damaging, especially at a food-focused holiday where somebody is struggling with disordered eating,” she says.

She suggests coming prepared with a few talking points to “redirect the conversation away from food or diet talk.”

More:Learn from Jonah Hill and stop commenting on people’s bodies, experts say

Set boundaries for your mental health

If people do push for additional information, don’t feel obligated to explain yourself. 

“You can repeat more than once: ‘That’s not something I feel comfortable discussing,’ ” Kelly says.

Miller explains boundaries are “fundamental to our overall mental health” because they help “protect us” and our mental well-being.

He says it’s critical to be “clear in how you set your boundaries.”

“If the topic comes up of politics, your babies or your job, and you’re not comfortable talking about it, simply say, ‘This is not something I am willing to talk about right now,'” he suggests. “You can ask people very respectfully to respect your boundaries… ‘I just don’t feel comfortable talking about it, and I would really appreciate it if we don’t bring that up right now.'”

Give consequences to overstepping boundaries

If someone continues to disrespect your boundaries, you can also make a consequence clear.

“‘Dad, if you bring up the election again, I am going to have to walk out of the room.’ ‘If you ask me about when I’m going to have grandkids again, I’m going to have to take a walk around the block,’ That’s perfectly appropriate,” Miller explains. “It’s not rude, it’s not condescending, it’s not disrespectful. It actually helps protect you and your mental health.”

If things get worse, have an exit strategy to leave the event.

Set up a support system

Having a buddy to help back you up and “protect you a bit” in difficult situations is also helpful, Miller explains. This could be a friend or supportive family member.

“If you’ve set your boundary and other people keep trying to step over it, it’s always nice to have somebody there who can help defend you – who can say, ‘He’s not willing to talk about that right now. Let’s move on to something else.'”

Kronengold says establishing a support system ahead of time is also vital for people struggling with eating disorders. 

“Think about who you can lean on, whether it’s someone in the room or someone you might have to text and check in with,” she says.

Find a way to recharge your emotional batteries

Once you head home, you may find you need to shake off any tension you experienced during the event or recharge your emotional batteries.

“I love to step away and read, because I feel like it clears my mind from all the things that have been on it for so long,” Miller says. “For others, it could be exercise (or) going out with friends and debriefing. No matter what it is, it’s a healthy and appropriate thing for us to do to process what happens during our holiday or family event.”

‘It’s hard to not isolate’:People are already bracing for seasonal depression. How to cope.

More:Some families are already dreading the holidays as vaccine debates cause strife

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