Ask Dr. Helen: Home For The Holidays From Hell

I recently did a show with PJM Political on XM (it will be on the XM Channel #130 POTUS 08 on Thanksgiving at 6:00 PM Eastern/3:00 PM Pacific) on surviving political discussions and family holidays. It seems that many of you out there in blog world are getting into heated discussions at the holidays while sitting around the dinner table and I imagine with the upcoming Presidential election, this year will be a doozy. So I figured this was a good time to discuss a holiday survival guide for those of you who may be about to spend some serious quality time with your extended family.


Naturally, I have written previous posts on the topic of holiday survival–back then, I naively thought I would hear some nice stories about how people got along for the holidays. Instead, here are some of the sad comments that I read about why people did not want to deal with family members:

My sister and brother-in-law are D.C. area residents and wear their politics on their sleeves. I quit arguing with them some 20 years ago when they stated that Reagan was responsible for the Yellowstone Park forest fires. I realized then I could not have a rational discussion with them.

The problem I have with this stuff is that my brother-in-law starts yelling. Who wants to converse with someone who’s attracting attention from all the other diners in a restaurant. I finally decided that he doesn’t really want a reasoned conversation. He just wants to shout down anyone who disagrees with him, so why bother?

My dad is as mean as a snake. All 8 of his kids bear the scars and deal with them in different ways. The last time I saw him was 5 years ago at the rehearsal dinner for my younger brother’s wedding. He was picking on my niece, and she not being used to that treatment slapped him in the face. I told my Dad to knock it the f–k off. He took exception and we started a fistfight in the restaurant. My dad was so bent out of shape that somebody stood up to him that he didn’t show up for the wedding, and I gladly stood in for him, next to my Mom, in all of the wedding pics.

I cherish Christmas with my family: A day with the estrogen poisoned females of my clan; children yelling and grubbing for the bounty that comes with the crass commercialism of the holiday; the ever present fear that my brother, four Christmases banished from the family for alcohol related lunacy, will crash his drunken, six foot, four inch body through the front door and spray the room with lead. Ah, Christmas! I strap an Officer’s Compact Colt .45 into a pancake holster on my hip in case the door comes off its hinges at the party, pack up my hastily purchased gifts, and I wade into this thing called Christmas. Ho, ho, ho, who wouldn’t go?

Through the years of Republican bashing followed by Kumbaya sing alongs (I kid you not), I have found the best strategy is to simply keep my mouth shut.


Now, most of the above comments are extreme but many of us feel awkward and/or upset over political discussions with family members over what should be a pleasant holiday meal or event. So the holidays are coming up and your family likes to discuss politics–what do you do if you are worried about fighting with Uncle Fester about the war in Iraq, with Aunt June over healthcare, and Cousin Jack over immigration instead of chowing down on turkey and cranberry sauce?

First, remember there is no need to discuss anything political. If you find the topic worse than a trip to the dentist to get your teeth pulled, just smile and say that at the holidays, you prefer to relax and talk about family and change the subject.

Second, you can’t generally change someone else’s mind, especially someone who is extreme (in either direction–left, right or otherwise) in their political views. Instead of focusing on changing one person’s view, think of ways that you can work to make your political goals known to a larger audience or in a way that will be more beneficial, by blogging, podcasting, or working on a political campaign.

Third, if you feel you must speak up, be prepared with a few facts, put them out in a polite manner and move on. If the topic gets heated, take a step back and say, “You are really passionate about this topic, why don’t we both step back and come back to it at a more appropriate time.”

Finally, if the political talk gets you too angry or frustrated, avoid it, especially if you have heart problems, high blood pressure or other problems that might be exacerbated if people really get on your nerves. Do some relaxation techniques or go outside and see what the kids are doing or what other family members are up to.


So, those are a few suggestions other than “use duct tape” which is what one of the commenters on the previously mentioned threads recommended.

Any one out there with other suggestions for how to deal with political discussions with family members over the holiday season? If so, let us know so we can all learn how to keep the conversation pleasant and the good times rolling along at this sometimes stressful time of year (or at least keep out of jail).


If you have a question you would like answered, please leave it below or email me at [email protected]. Your questions may be edited for length and clarity. Please note that your first name only or no name at all will be used to identify your question-if you want me to use your name, tell me, otherwise you will be referred to by your first name or as “a reader” etc.

Helen Smith is a psychologist specializing in forensic issues in Knoxville, Tennessee and blogs at This advice column is for educational and entertainment purposes only and does not purport to replace therapy or psychological treatment.


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