Growing up, Alan Godwin knew what to expect at holiday gatherings: the faces, the foods, the hour-long monologues from that one very well-informed uncle0.
Uncle Bob “was the classic case of, you ask him what time it is, he’ll tell you how to make a watch,” says Godwin, 58.
“He knew a lot about economics, about science, about just about everything. He would sit for an hour and a half and tell you why a pack of gum would never cost more than a nickel — he had this whole economic theory. Well, he was wrong about that, but he could tell you in far more detail than you’d ever want to know.”
With the holidays fast approaching, many of us are bracing for our annual interactions with the family eccentrics and oddballs, particularly if those interactions will include children or teens.
The good news, experts say, is that as long as the relative isn’t physically violent or emotionally abusive, you have a lot of options, from debriefing a teenager embarrassed by an eccentric uncle’s harmless quirks, to teaming up with other parents to monitor a sharp-tongued great-aunt when she’s interacting with young children, to deploying a little humor when discouraging a hard-living relative from using profanity.
The better news is that your kids may actually learn something about tolerance and empathy along the way.
“We can’t always like all our family members, but we can be curious about what makes them tick,” says Eli Karam, an assistant professor of marriage and family therapy at the University of Louisville. “Why are they the way they are? Generally people are not set up to intentionally cause you grief. Generally, there’s some understandable explanation for why they do what they do.”
Almost everybody has an odd relative, and some people — including Godwin, a psychologist and author of “How to Solve Your People Problems” (Harvest House) — say that these relatives can be assets to family gatherings. His long-winded uncle, he says, had a good heart and a mind like a steel trap.
Plus, family members got to swap Uncle Bob stories afterward.
“Did Uncle (Bob) tell you the one about the pack of gum?” a cousin might ask.
“Oh, yeah,” someone would reply with a chuckle. “I heard that one. I heard it 15 times before, but I heard it again.”
Many family eccentrics fit the basic Uncle Bob mold: markedly quirky and irritating at times, but entirely nonthreatening. Younger kids tend to handle these figures well; they may actually be more comfortable with stale jokes, funny nicknames or amateur magic tricks.
By the age of 12, though, kids tend to be embarrassed by silly or unconventional behavior, says Megan Murphy, director of clinical training for the marriage and family therapy program at Antioch University New England.
Try debriefing teens and tweens after the party and help them understand their reactions, Murphy suggests. What bothered your child about the encounter? Does she feel the relative’s behavior reflects on her? Does it? Also consider concrete solutions: Maybe a teen can excuse herself from the room when the talk gets supremely silly.
A relative with a tart tongue can present a greater challenge. What if Aunt Susie gets nasty after she has a few drinks? What if she has been known to criticize the kids?
Young children need to be protected from this kind of behavior, experts say. If Aunt Susie is actually emotionally destructive, you may want to skip part of the gathering. Even if you determine the situation is manageable, don’t leave the little ones alone with Aunt Susie, Murphy advises. You and the other parents of young children can work out a way to take turns (discreetly) monitoring the situation.
Parents can encourage teens and tweens to talk about their feelings toward Aunt Susie and devise methods of handling her.
“If someone is being borderline abusive, it’s important to teach teenagers to stand up for themselves. That’s a skill they’re going to have to have in life,” Murphy says.
Maybe an older kid can come up with a simple line to use if Aunt Susie gets out of hand: “That really hurt my feelings when you said that.”
The relative who, say, just got back from rehab or spent time in prison for a nonviolent crime — and has the tattoos to prove it — presents a different set of issues.
If you know you and your child are physically and emotionally safe with this person but you’re worried about, for instance, the adult nature of the tattoos, you may be borrowing trouble, experts say.
A very young child probably wouldn’t pick up on the tattoos, Murphy says, and a teen has likely seen something worse at school or on the Internet. If the relative is prone to profanity, on the other hand, you may want to move humorously but decisively to protect your kids: “Oh! Watch your language. Johnny’s only 2, and he picks up new words quickly!”
If children do have questions about the relative’s colorful past, feel free to answer them, but keep your responses simple and age-appropriate, Karam says.
“This is a good time to teach your children that even adults make mistakes, but they can learn from those mistakes, and they need their families around them when they recover,” he says.