Tip Sheets

Holiday gathering tips from Cornell family relationships expert

Media Contact

Abby Kozlowski

The holiday season has arrived, and for many, it signifies coming together with family. These moments are filled with joy and fulfillment for some, while for others, the reunion with family members can bring about interpersonal tension and emotional challenges.

Karl Pillemer

Professor of psychology and of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine

With four decades of research on family relationships after children become adults, Cornell University professor of psychology and gerontology, Karl Pillemer, has a few tips for enjoying family time.

Pillemer says:

Your relatives are not a DIY project

“When we don’t see each other that often, there’s a great temptation to use the holiday to change one another’s lives. Parents may see the opportunity to criticize a partner or to wonder when their offspring will finally show some ambition and get a better job. Children may look around the big old house and try to convince their parents to downsize.

“Don’t try to change anyone over the holidays. Focus on appreciating your loved ones as they are, and save any desire for change for some other time of the year.”

Step back

“There is a simple but powerful concept you can embrace to make it through the holidays: underreact.

“Or pretend you are a researcher in your family, objectively observing what’s going on. Stepping back mentally gives you more control over your own reactions and lets you understand your family dynamics.”

Have an escape hatch

“You can also take ‘stepping back’ more literally. Some people find that their family interactions are more relaxed and manageable if they don’t stay in the same house with everyone.

“Try springing for a hotel during the stay if you know your family will get on your nerves. The feeling that you have somewhere else to go for a break can be very liberating. Or make your stay shorter – long enough to feel part of the family, but short enough not to blow a fuse.”

Take a stand against political discussions

“There is such a thing as a great political discussion. That’s a reasoned discussion with people listening, and where there is a realistic possibility of changing someone’s opinions.

“There’s an easy rule you can use: If there’s no chance of changing someone’s mind, don’t have the discussion. Walk away – and I don’t mean that just figuratively. If a relative directs political hostility toward you, it’s fine to say no. Be firm, and head to a different room or outside if you need to.”

Think big

“It can help to see the forest instead of the trees when you are in family holiday mode. You can tell yourself that making the holiday go smoothly is the best gift you can provide. Try to keep in mind that you are there because you love your family. And if you are with your in-laws, remind yourself that despite whatever difficulties you may have, they did, after all, raise your partner.”

Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews.