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Seven tips to keep the holidays happy and avoid family meltdowns

Is your family more like The Sopranos than The Waltons? For many people, the holidays — and in particular family get-togethers — means tension and stress.

Today’s busy families have moved toward a pattern of individual activities (iPods, the internet), rather than joint activities, according to Dennis Orthner, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work. Interaction — such as a large family gathering — occurs only on special occasions, making them less familiar. Add the usual seasonal stressors like finances, crowded shopping malls and travel and the holidays are ripe for tension.

“When families are able to spend time interacting, keeping it positive, studies have shown that it is good for a person’s overall well-being,” Orthner said. “The holidays are an opportunity for families to re-engage with one another, to open up channels of communication that are rusty. But you have to keep it positive.”

Orthner’s seven tips for happy holidays:

Instead of gift cards take the person shopping. Then you’re spending time with them and creating good memories.
When someone makes disparaging comments use the classic communication technique of re-direction. “Let’s talk about that later.” Then change the subject.
To prevent tension at family gatherings spend time listening. Avoid stressful topics. Don’t try to heal a big wound. Keep it light and focus on things outside the relationship rather than on the relationship itself.
Fly instead of driving 12 hours to grandma’s if the family is prone to car ride meltdowns. If your family can’t handle long trips, do not put them in a situation known to cause problems.
Don’t go if relatives are so dysfunctional that holiday gatherings are completely unenjoyable. Send a card instead.
Reconnect with family by trying new, interactive activities, such as bowling or ice skating. If you usually go to an Italian restaurant, try Cuban instead. Doing new things can help your family get out of a deep groove and create a new set of positive memories.
Keep the positive interaction going after the holidays. Plan regular family outings, with varied activities, so everyone has something to look forward to. “It’s one of the best New Year’s resolutions you can make,” Orthner said.