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Dr. Phil's Peace Plan

Don't be a turkey - or get gobbled up by one - at this year's family gathering. TV therapist Dr. Phil McGraw offers his tough, touching plan for holiday harmony.

Nov. 15, 2012   |  
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Dr. Phil McGraw
Dr. Phil McGraw / Robert Sebree / USA WEEKEND

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Thanksgiving can split as unevenly as a wishbone: loving tradition and family on one side; anxiety and dysfunction on the other.

Phil McGraw, the plain-talking psychologist who hosts the daytime talk show Dr. Phil, has seen his family holidays change. Older son Jay married and began a family (granddaughter Avery is almost 3; grandson London is 14 months). Younger son Jordan is out on his own. Everyone had to make adjustments. As always in Dr. Phil’s world, the most significant changes start with the self.

This week, as families gather across the nation, try Dr. Phil’s road-tested rules for a more peaceful, loving and thank-full holiday.

Rule # 1:

Remember what it’s about. “Really truly reflect on what you’re thankful for. I know it sounds so corny but at our Thanksgiving table we do go around the table and say what we’re thankful for since we sat here the last time. It’s really interesting to see what people talk about and what meant what to them. If we can’t be together on Thursday, then we do it on Friday. The focus is not freaking out over food and seating charts, but just really getting together.”

Rule #2:

Curb your high expectations. “What upsets people is not what happens. What upsets people is if what happens violates their expectation of what was going to happen!

“If you expect things to be perfect and smooth and they’re not, you get upset.

“If you expect them to be way less than perfect but there will be some really good moments, then you’re happy as a clam.

“The same thing happens: You just had a different expectation.

“Everybody’s got the drunk uncle that shows up or the sister that would rather fight than eat. If you go into the holiday knowing that, then you’re not going to be all freaked out, you’re going to focus on the really good stuff.”

Rule #3:

Choose not to fight. The thing that’s important is that we all recognize that we always have the choice to not respond [to conflict]. “My dad was an alcoholic. ... We used to argue all the time. I had an argument with him one time and made a life decision right there at my desk. I said, ‘I have argued with him for the last time in my life. I’m not going to do it anymore. It’s not worth it. I don’t like me when I do it. I don’t like him when we do it. It never resolves anything.’ … He lived another seven or eight years, and we never argued again, because I made a life decision not to do it.

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“It doesn’t take a special person … you can make a life decision that ‘I’m not going to be combative with my family members anymore. I may have the right to and I may have the justification to. If this holiday season melts down, it’s certainly not going to be because of me. You can make that decision. Holidays are a great time to embrace that.”

Rule # 4:

Challenge tradition. “Don’t stress yourself out by over-committing to travel, over-committing time, money you don’t have. Give yourself permission to do that one time. ...

“There’s no substitute for giving your mother and father a hug, there’s no substitute for grandkids on grandpa and grandma’s lap. But in this electronic age, you can get on Polycom or get on Skype on your computer, you can make a phone call — you can do things that you say ‘maybe that might will suffice for this year.’”

Rule #5:

Delegate. “My mother loved you with food. … If you didn’t sit down and eat everything that was dead or seriously slowed down, she was offended. That was her currency; that was what she wanted to have happen. … But some people, some women, put themselves at the bottom of the list. They’ve got to take care of everybody and do everything and by the end of the holidays they’re just spent. Delegate some of that. It doesn’t kill you to order a pie instead of make one.”

Rule #6:

Keep your focus. “If it becomes this time of year and you say, ‘Wow, we’ve lost a job, maybe a house, we’ve had to make sacrifices and we don’t have much to be thankful for’ — then you’ve really lost your focus.

“[People who] parent from guilt, they think they failed their family because they’re not providing for them. … Video games and designer clothes and Christmas vacations — that’s not providing. Providing means mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually — all of those things.”

Rule # 7:

Grandparents, know your limited role. “It’s really important for grandparents to know their boundaries and not contradict mom and dad. That’s the biggest problem I see happening. Grandparents want to spoil, which is our right. But you don’t ever countermand the parent, and that can really be a problem during the holidays.

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“The time to negotiate is before you get in the heat of battle. You don’t negotiate when little Johnny is setting the cat on fire.

“Ahead of time [parents] need to talk [to grandparents] about: ‘We’re really making a concerted effort to get little Suzie not to hit.’

“Don’t undo that. Because seriously, [parents] can spend a week extinguishing a behavior with a child and then Grandma can come in and say, ‘Oh, that’s all right.’

“You just erased a week. Don’t do that.”

Rule # 8:

Don’t miss the innocent moments. “Here’s the fun part of it: The first time [my granddaughter Avery] saw the decorations at Grandma’s house, the first time she came in and everything was fixed up for the holidays, she just lights up and is so excited. To get to be there for that moment and see that joy in [a grandchild’s] face, the innocence and joy, it will never happen again. You don’t want to blink in that moment.

“They say you never get a second chance at a first impression? You never get a second chance to see their first impression. You really want to be there and watch it.”

Rule # 9:

Don’t set the bird on fire — like I did. “Well, you know when you get a turkey it’s got that sack of stuff in the middle of it? The unmentionables. You’re supposed to take that out of there. I was assigned to do that one time and I thought I did and I didn’t. I proceeded to burn the entire bird up to a ridiculous crisp We had a turkey that was burning from the inside. Can you imagine? It was smoking like you wouldn't believe. The poor thing was crunchy. Smoke filled the kitchen and the dining room and, well, the entire house. Fortunately, we saw it and got it out of there. I was lucky I didn't burn the house down."

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