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Want to finally say something back at the holiday dinner? Try talking like a teacher

By Madeline Holcombe, CNN

(CNN) — What if we talked to the difficult people at our holiday gatherings this year the way we talk to kindergarteners?

“No thank you, Aunt Tracy. At dinner we mind our own plate,” said Arielle Fodor in her TikTok video on her account, Mrs. Frazzled. “It is never OK to make comments on someone’s appearance or what they’re eating.”

Fodor is a former kindergarten teacher in Los Angeles who now makes content on how strategies she has honed from her background in child development can be applied in the realm of adults — whether it’s at a presidential debate in which candidates need to learn that they must speak one at a time or a family dinner where someone is upset over different pronouns.

It’s comedy and the tone is tongue-in-cheek, but the principles she used in her classroom often apply, Fodor said.

“We aim to be warm demanders in the classroom,” she said. And that means focusing on building relationships and trying to hold students to their high expectations. But you’re also going to support them to meet those high expectations. You’re not just going to leave them high and dry.

Your words may be different, but approaching this holiday like a kindergarten teacher may help you set and defend your boundaries while maintaining a warm, positive atmosphere.

Setting boundaries might seem like the start of a fight, but it’s just a way to communicate what your needs are and what you are OK with, said Kami Orange, a boundary coach based in southern Utah, in a previous CNN article.

Adults are just grown-up kids

Of course, you wouldn’t use the same tone to deliver your boundaries to an adult that you would a kid, but many of the same philosophies apply, Fodor said.

“The longer I’ve spent learning about child development, the more I realized that adults are truly just grown-up children,” she said.

That doesn’t mean that your competitive cousin or judgmental uncle isn’t responsible for what they say. It just may help you to frame some of the hurtful things they say differently, Fodor said.

“We all are just grown-up children, all kind of seeking the same thing. And a lot of the ways that adults connect or say things are not most helpful, and they’re hurtful sometimes,” she added.

To address the hurt, try to be gentle, using “I” statements, such as “I can’t talk about this subject when we get together because I get uncomfortable.” That way your response sounds less accusatory, said Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, a psychologist based in Connecticut, in a previous CNN article.

And your “kindergarten teacher” approach can start before the gathering does with a conversation about topics you are comfortable with and those you would like to stay away from, she added.

Connect before you correct

What you say may not be the most important part, Fodor said.

“It’s less about how you talk and more about how you listen,” she added.

Fodor said educators call it “connect before your correct,” and it’s when you make someone feel understood or cared about before you correct their behavior.

“It’s not a method of appeasement. It’s not saying it’s OK that you said that,” Fodor said. “It’s very much like, ‘I can see that you were raised that way or I understand that you have X perspective. However, this is not acceptable,’” she said.

That doesn’t mean she can always do it perfectly in her own life and social circles, though.

“It’s difficult for me to slow down … because I just find something so egregious and I’m like, ‘I cannot engage with you right now. Like, I don’t want to even deal with it,’” Fodor said. “But I have had really fruitful conversations when I am able to hold a boundary and kind of educate in the same moment.”

If you are having trouble holding that boundary or an interaction is going to be too hurtful, you can always leave, Orange said.

“Sometimes the physical removal of yourself from a situation is the best boundary,” she said.

It doesn’t have to be a blowup — you might even decide beforehand to make up an excuse that allows you to leave once it stops being fun, Orange added. Maybe you are going to swing by a friend’s house for dessert, the kids will need to get to bed early, or the cat at home will need to be fed dinner before it gets too late — any of which would help set expectations when it’s time to leave.

“Holidays are about connection, and if that connection feels awful, it doesn’t have to happen,” Capanna-Hodge said.

Stepping away for a break is also something that works in the kindergarten classroom, Fodor said.

“If a child is emotionally dysregulated or (has) a ‘big feeling’ of some kind, it can be really helpful to reset and revisit,” she said.

“Even as adults, we know that it is hard to have a productive discussion with another person if we are frustrated or in emotional distress.”


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