We were making progress, this new couple and I. Eli was getting it.

  • He realized that his sarcastic remarks, his put-downs, his glares, and his barely-controlled anger all constitute verbal abuse.
  • He was starting to work effectively with his tools, too. He had downloaded the mp3 file from my website and had burnt the relaxation disc. He was listening daily and taking the deep breaths that I recommend for slowing down his autonomic nervous system so as to engage his brain and not just react.
  • He was practicing assertiveness to make his points effectively in a non-threatening way.
  • Perhaps most important, he was working hard at catching himself falling into the trap of victim thinking. That means, just by catching himself, he would prevent many awful fights.


His wife, Andrea, was starting to see a difference. She was still nervous, hurt from the past, and unsure of the future, but the good part is that she understood that healing takes time and she was giving this process the time it needed.


All well and good.


Until Thanksgiving approached.


If Your Spouse Is Abusive, His Parent Probably Was, Too


Thanksgiving meant that Mother was coming. His mother. The person who taught Eli every dirty trick he knows and remained clueless of the pain she constantly inflicted. So instead of preparing for a lovely family visit, Andrea’s nerves were tuned to a high pitch; she found herself yelling at the children more, dropping things unexpectedly, and in a near-collision on the highway. She most definitely did not want his mother to come. But Eli’s mother is quite elderly, alone, and not well, and Andrea also wanted to do what she knew to be the right thing. She was trapped.


That Eli’s mother created such a problem is totally to be expected. After all, abusers do not just pop up out of thin air; they were created. Their abusive personalities were taught to them and nurtured carefully by the parents who were supposed to do otherwise. The parents of abusers either

  • ignored,
  • criticized, or
  • put their children down,
  • or all three.
  • They could have spoiled them, too, turning their precious children into selfish brats and narcissistic adults.
  • Or, the parents could have done all of the above. Either way, that’s abuse.


The worst part about all this is that the parents, particularly if they are generally thought of as kind people, are clueless as to the havoc they have wrought and keep on wreaking. And, because they are parents, and perhaps lonely or sick in their old age, adult children feel constrained from saying anything.


So I came up with a fool-proof, three-step formula for making holiday meals enjoyable with cranky and difficult parents:


3 Steps To Happy Holidays


Step One: All communications should be done with kindness, gentleness and humor. My contention here is that you cannot teach someone how to be kind and gentle by being nasty and unpleasant yourself. It just doesn’t work. As much as you think your parent or in-law deserves it, you’ve got to let God take care of punishments; that’s not your job.


Step Two: Let your mom or dad know that there’s a new Rule in the house: All communications are to be pleasant. That’s the rule. That leaves out criticism, complaints, put-downs, and general negativity. That also leaves out the implication that the parent knows better than the child about anything. This Rule, in keeping with Step One, must be delivered with a pleasant smile.


Step Three: Your parent will fail right away. After eighty years of doing it wrong, the change isn’t going to be 1-2-3. No problem. Patiently, and with that humor of Step One, say, “Mom, remember the rule! Let me hear you say something positive! Or a compliment! C’mon, I know you can do it.”


What To Do When It Doesn’t Work


What if your parent attempts to keep the old ways going and uses any trick in the book to do so? For instance, what if your parent becomes “hurt” or “offended” at the use of humor? The answer is: Return to Step Three, this time using another patient, kind, and humorous statement to get mom or dad back on track, such as, “Mom, I’m still waiting for that positive statement.” In other words, ignore the ploy completely.


Question: “Can I say that even after she said I hurt her feelings?”


Answer: “Yes, you can.” You know you didn’t hurt her feelings at all. Don’t address the subject directly or you will be mired down in an endless argument. Do you want to have a nice Thanksgiving or other family dinner? – Stick to the Steps and don’t become defensive. You’ll feel proud of yourself and your dinner will be lovely, too.

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