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Tips for Managing Family Conflict Over the Holidays

Contrary to what the songs say, the holidays are not necessarily the “hap-happiest” time of year. When family dynamics are complex and tense, spending an extended period time with family members over the holidays can be anxiety provoking. In particular, many people describe challenges navigating differences in political, ideological, and religious views. In these situations, it can be helpful to be prepared and identify strategies to prevent and cope with conflicts that could arise.

Tips to Try

Set boundaries around discussing contentious topics.

When a contentious topic arises, it can be difficult to resist the urge to jump in and try to persuade the other person to agree with your point of view. However, keep in mind that this is unlikely to change the other person’s opinion, and is more likely to escalate the argument.

Instead, it can be helpful to prepare a statement politely declining to discuss the topic at that time, such as:

“I understand this is an important topic. I am wondering if we could table this conversation to another time?”

If the other person ignores the initial request, stay firm. In this situation, it can be helpful to engage in what is called the “broken record” method and use the statement repeatedly so the other person knows you’re serious.

Trouble setting boundaries?

It’s not uncommon for people to experience difficulties setting healthy boundaries, especially if they grew up in a household where healthy boundaries were not respected.

However, practicing boundary setting and knowing you have a right to say “no” when someone else’s behavior makes you uncomfortable is an important life skill for maintaining healthy relationships. Same with any other skill, it will get easier with practice.

Change the subject

It is likely that while some subjects are contentious, there are other topics where you can find agreement or neutrality. If you see that a conversation could be taking a turn towards a hot button topic, here are some ideas to steer the conversation another way:

  • Share about something in your life that is positive or neutral.

  • Discuss a shared interest – perhaps a shared hobby, or a television show or movie you both like.

  • Share a funny or fond family memory.

  • Express gratitude to your family members about something nice they did.

  • Pay compliments – about their cooking, their festive outfit, an accomplishment you heard they achieved.

  • Develop traditions, games, or other activities to engage in together that would be fun and encourage bonding.

Acknowledge and honor your feelings

It can be painful to hear remarks that are offensive or that stand against your world views or life choices, especially when they come from loved ones. Unfortunately, in spite of your best efforts to avoid hearing these types of remarks, you may still encounter them. These situations can feel very invalidating, and can be difficult to accept or to not take personally. It may even impact negatively on your self-esteem or sense of agency. If a triggering conversation arises, it could help to engage in coping skills.

Ways to Cope

  • Diaphragmatic breathing/belly breathing: Step away and take deep, slow breaths. Breathe into your stomach (not into your chest) as this will generate a greater sense of relaxation.

  • Ground yourself by looking at the sights, smells, and sounds around the room to bring your focus back to present moment experiences (rather than the content of the conversation).

  • Get support from a friend, family member, or therapist who knows your situation and can understand and offer support.

Watch out for negative interpretations

When hearing offensive comments from family members, people often interpret these in harsh ways (e.g., “they don’t love me, they don’t care about me”). During these times, it is helpful to remember that the family member’s belief reflects on them, not you.

Their opinion is the result of their interpretation of different life experiences, and may also be influenced by generational or cross-cultural differences. Likely, their comment does not reflect their affection for you.

However, if you find yourself in a situation where a family members’ love is conditional or the relationship is toxic, keeping your distance may be the tool to use for that moment. Remember, there is no one-size fits all approach for coping with family conflict.

Need help with family conflict?

Family conflict can be very complex. If you feeling anxious and stressed about family issues around the holidays (or otherwise), talking to a professional could help.