Local experts offer advice for handling the holidays with difficult family members

November 17, 2011|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE |
  • Local experts say one way to avoid conflict over the holidays is for family members to not have built-in expectations of how the holiday will go or how others will behave.
Photo illustration by Yvette May/Staff Photographer

Everything was going fine during the yearly holiday get-together until Aunt Judy made a snide comment about your husband's choice of career. Uh-oh.

For some, the holidays aren't a joyous reunion but an annual jousting match. The good news is it doesn't have to be that way, local experts say.

Here are a few ways to keep the peace during the holidays:

Forget Norman Rockwell

"Keep your expectations low, low, low - as low as possible," said Lou A. Lichti, a psychologist whose practice, City Park Psychological Services, has locations in Hagerstown and Frederick, Md.

She said it's those unrealistic ideas of a perfect holiday that set people up for an emotional letdown.

Instead, she said, even before the day begins, try not to have built-in expectations for how the holiday will go or how others will act.

The Rev. Susan A. Haberkorn, a licensed pastoral counselor with Mercy Counseling and Coaching of Hagerstown, also said to be realistic.

 "If you didn't have that kind of family the rest of the year, it's not going to magically appear at the holidays," she said.

Keep your ears open and mouth shut

During the hectic and often chaotic holidays, everyone comes wanting to share stories of the past year. The best tool at these times, Lichti said, is to listen.

"We all want to be heard," she said.

Save your stories for the holiday newsletter because by listening to others' tales, you might learn something new, she said.

And, she said, it always helps to have a sense of humor.

Have a way out

If you know the same buttons are going to be pushed, make a plan for sidestepping those situations, said Jack Carpenter, executive director of Washington County Community Mediation Center in Hagerstown.

He suggested taking a breath, taking a walk or finding an excuse to get out of the conversation.

"Try to avoid the confrontation, so that way it doesn't escalate," Carpenter said.

Haberkorn said keeping the peace is really about personal responsibility.

"No one can be responsible for another person's behavior," she said.

If you can't avoid the situation, Haberkorn said to calm down and "take a breath."

Don't wait until the holidays to deal

Instead of trying to avoid problems, try dealing with them head-on, Carpenter suggested.

"If it's a situation that has some history to it, you might want to think about mediation before the event," he said.

He estimated that about 85 to 90 percent of the cases handled by the Washington County Community Mediation Center are personal relationships. Mediation at the center is free, but an appointment is needed.

Change of plans

For certain families, holidays seem to be a trigger for all things wrong. In those cases, it might be better to arrange a different day to visit, or maybe not visit at all.

"Take care of yourself," Lichti said. "It might not be a magical holiday."

If you want help ...

  •  Psychologist Lou Lichti with City Park Psychological Services can be reached at 301-733-3130, ext. 1, or or go to
  •  To make an appointment with the Washington County Mediation Center, call 301-665-9232, or email, or go to
  •  The Rev. Susan A. Haberkorn with Mercy Counseling and Coaching of Hagerstown can be reached evenings and Saturdays at 301-797-6645 or email, or go to

The Herald-Mail Articles