Surviving Family Conflict During the Holidays

Fall and winter bring with them not only cooler weather and sweaters, but also a season of celebration. Across the nation, families are celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Boxing Day, St. Lucia Day, Three Kings Day, Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and many more. These holidays and days of remembrance bring families together - for better or worse.As Dr. Hunter pointed out in her recent blog, the holidays do not always bring joy and happiness for those experiencing grief due to loss of a relationship or the death of a loved one. In addition to grief, people may dread the holidays because of conflict between family members, differing political views, or struggling to meet the expectations and demands of multiple family members.If family conflict is on the horizon for you this holiday season, there are things that you can do to make things less stressful and more enjoyable:First and foremost, Be Prepared for Some Conflict. If you usually have conflict when you get together with your family, it's a good idea to be prepared for it. I am not suggesting that you put on some armor and practice stinging comebacks in anticipation of a battle, but I am suggesting be realistic about your expectations. If your mother always criticizes your appearance or your aunt makes inappropriate comments, don't expect them to change their habits; just have a sense of humor about it and remind yourself of what you love about them. If that doesn’t work and you must respond, try the following things:

  • Respond with empathy. Try to remember that critical people often are trying to communicate something else, albeit ineffectively. Listen for what they are really saying.
  • Use “I” statements. Conflict makes people defend themselves and to go on the attack. Instead, use “I” statements (“I feel frustrated when…” instead of “You keep ruining everything,” as an example) so that the other person can understand your point of view instead of feeling attacked.
  • Look for compromise. If your family expects you to be at every holiday celebration and your partner’s family also wants you to be a part of their festivities, take turns. Or host one holiday celebration at your home so everyone can come.
  • Take a time out. If tempers flare and conversations get heated, take a break. Or if things just feel overwhelming, it’s okay to find a quiet spot to get away. If you are a parent of young children, you probably already know the “I am going to the bathroom, be back in a minute” trick to get a few moments of peace. Going for a walk is also a great way to escape for a few moments.
  • Don’t give up. Unless it is time to give up on the relationship, don’t give up on communicating.
  • Own what is yours. If there is anything in your own behavior that contributes to the conflict, own it and make an effort to monitor or control it.

Another option is to just say no to it all. If seeing family causes you great amounts of stress each year, it’s okay to say no sometimes. Celebrating with just your partner or kids can be a wonderful alternative to seeing people who make you feel consistently stressed. You may also choose to surround yourself with people who do make you feel good, such as friends. Either way, it’s also a wonderful opportunity to create your own traditions.This time of year is filled with holiday spirit and hope for a peaceful time. If you are struggling in any way, ask for help. You might even benefit from a few sessions with a therapist. Couples and family therapy may also be helpful for managing altercations and teach skills to resolve future conflict.