The season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is supposed to be merry and bright. What about when gathering with family creates discord and discontent rather than all the feelings generated by the picture-perfect family Christmas cards that adorn social media? That’s when we need tips for handling family conflict and stress during the holidays.
While many are loathe to admit it (approximately 25% in fact), three quarters of those asked in a psychological study admitted that they had at least one family member who annoyed them. It only takes one to stir the pot and take a perfectly enjoyable holiday meal and end up with catastrophic interactions that take the next year or more to heal from. None of us wants to spoil our holidays with family discord, but the questions remain: what causes it and what can we do about it?
Why are holidays with family stressful?
A question I get asked frequently is, what causes stress during the holidays? There are many factors at play. In psychology there is a social phenomenon called “The Narcissism of the Small Difference” which basically explains that when people who are very similar gather, the minor differences between them tends to breed hostility. This is because we have come to remember and value differences between ourselves, and others more than we do the similarities.
We are probably more like the family we grew up in than anyone else we will encounter. Yet everyone longs to be unique and their own person, so we tend to focus on our differences. Those differences aren’t necessarily wrong, but rather fuel to light the fire in stressful situations.
Another factor is at play with respect to family conflict and stress during the holidays is what we call “social allergens.” Those are basically those little things that are initially overlooked or tolerated, but with repeated exposure can contribute to emotional intolerance. Many relationship conflicts are the result of cumulative annoyances or small irritating behaviors that are repeated.
A third contributing factor to relationship discord, conflict, and stress during the holidays, is the fact that we aren’t always at our best. The holidays, with all our extra activities, play havoc on our usual good lifestyle habits. We have more to do, but no extra time to accomplish the tasks, so we borrow from other areas like sleep and exercise. Parties and family functions often lend to more sugary foods and increased alcohol consumption. Such behaviors not only have a detrimental impact on our mental health, but also on our ability to adequately guard our hearts and our mouths. We may be less apt to hold a harsh word or forgive a comment that insults or berates.
A fourth contributor to relationship discord, conflict, and stress during the holidays is the tendency to prime our memories about the past, and previous hurts and disagreements. Reminding ourselves of such past wrongdoings can make us more likely to engage in conflict promoting behaviors when we gather with those who wronged us before.
A fifth contributor to family conflict and stress during the holidays is the fact that sibling rivalry doesn’t always end when siblings become adults. Unmet needs in childhood just take a different form in adulthood. One sibling may retain jealousy or anger over what they perceive to be unfair advantages toward another sibling either in childhood or even as adults. Such deep-seated feelings are likely to rise to the surface when entire families gather, especially during the holidays when memories and more recent achievements are discussed.
A sixth contributor to conflict and stress during family gatherings over the holidays are the arguments and differences of opinion that have occurred previously but never been resolved. Buried hurts, or unresolved offenses, are a ready trigger especially for those who don’t spend much time together at any other time during the year. It is unrealistic to think that such hurts will be resolved during emotionally charged holiday festivities, but some aren’t even able to put their differences and hurt feelings aside for the sake of the family and their relationships.
Finally, the mindset with which we approach the holiday and each gathering can significantly impact our experience. If we approach the holidays dreading Uncle Herbert’s political commentary, or Aunt Martha’s tendency to rehash her every medical complaint, rather than appreciating the positive aspects of their personality, the outcome will likely be intolerance or at least frustration.
Even when we have identified the most common triggers for holiday family fights, the question remains, what do we do about it? Let’s turn our attention now to tips for handling family conflict and stress during the holidays.
How can you avoid conflict during the holidays?
The holidays are a time to come together, celebrate the good, and suspend judgment, shame, and blame, yet not everyone is prepared to do that.
1) One of the first things that I always suggest to my patients, is to Suspend Your Expectations of yourself and others. It’s human nature to form ideas in our mind of how things should go, how people will respond, and what the perfect scenario looks like. The problem is, everyone comes to the gathering with those mental images, while no one else knows what the other’s images look like.
So, it is unrealistic for others to fulfill our expectations. Uncle Fred may love the gift you gave him, but never be one for an effusive display of gratitude. Your cousin Bonnie may love the table setting you so meticulously displayed but be struggling with feelings of inferiority and feel as if she doesn’t measure up to your standards. Grandma Jane may love the meal you prepared, but her chemotherapy has made everything taste like metal, making every meal less enjoyable, and her less likely to comment that this year’s gravy is your best yet.
2) Give More Emphasis on Relationship Than Perfection. When the holidays come, it’s normal to want to give the perfect gift, make the perfect dessert, attend the perfect candlelight service, etc. Unfortunately, social media feeds this desire when people post their picture-perfect family holiday photos, that no one else knows required 300 imperfect shots before that perfect one was achieved. Holidays are a time to appreciate the people who are with us. When we focus on enjoying others presence, rather than worrying about all the extras of the holidays being perfect, we can extend grace toward others and ourselves. Many could tell you that they would give anything to have a recently deceased loved one present that holiday even if it meant a lack of special meals, presents, or decorations. Let’s appreciate those who are in our lives while we still have them.
3) Remember the Reason We Gather. It is true that the holidays don’t always engender the most amicable of interactions. When we shift our focus away from our differences, and instead focus on the similarities, such as the reason we gather in the first place, healing can occur. The holiday rush sometimes makes us forget the reason we celebrate in the first place. But without that, they are just otherwise normal days punctuated by excessive materialism. Intentionally take the time to reflect and show appreciation for our many blessings. It’s a time to pay attention to the reason rather than the season.
4) Embrace the Differences. While I am comfortable in my own skin, life would be boring if everyone was like me. Even if we wanted everyone to be the same (although I don’t know why we would), we would never fully be satisfied. I’ve spent my career as a clinical neuropsychologist. But if your pipes burst, you’ll be grateful everyone isn’t a neuropsychologist, and that plumbers are the ones with the knowledge who can come to the rescue. The same holds true within our families. Some can make others laugh without even trying, while others are excellent problem solvers. Some have incredible compassion, while others are no nonsense in their ability to get things done. Embrace, accept, and appreciate the differences as a gift.
5) Let it Go. If you really value your family relationships for what they could be, or at least for what they are, you’ll realize that silence is often more important than proving a point. Rather than adding fuel to the fire that won’t likely truly be resolved during this holiday visit, anyway, determine to be the bigger person and just let it go. That, in and of itself, is a gift to all those around you. I’ve heard it said, “Knowing when to walk away is wisdom. Being able to is courage. Walking away, with your head held high is dignity.”
6) Declare a Time-Out. You already know where the proverbial landmines exist, and who pushes whose buttons every time the family gathers. Before the family gathers again, pro-actively declare that this holiday there will be a truce or time-out from bickering, arguing, antagonizing, and the like.
7) Practice Gratitude. Sometimes the ones we love the most are those we hurt or who hurt us the most. But many would give anything they could to be able to spend time this holiday with their loved ones who are no longer here. When we look at it like that, perhaps all the other irritating factors aren’t so important after all. Why not take this opportunity to shower the people you love with your love and gratitude while you have the chance?
8) Laugh it Off. Laughter has a way of diffusing situations. No one really wants to spend the holidays sad or angry, and yet, so often our pride gets in the way. But then everyone suffers. Sometimes you just must find something to laugh about and let everyone’s rising emotions take a deep belly laugh breath.
9) Determine Your Mindset Ahead of Time. Relationship difficulties often breed arguments and discord because we ultimately fear losing control. Determining ahead of time how we will look at our relationships actually gives us back a sense of control and can significantly impact our perspective while engaged. For example, instead of determining that your brother will not get the last word, try deciding that you will be open to hearing his perspective and agree to disagree so that you can enjoy what little time you have to spend together now that you both have your own families.
What other ways have you found to cope with family conflict and stress during the holidays? Share with us in the comments below.
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I very much appreciate this post. It’s very relatable. I’ve experienced several of these scenarios you wrote about. Understanding really helps.
I also appear your realistic solutions. We all want peace. Very good post that I will refer back to in the future.
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I appreciate this wisdom and it makes me smile on one level, because I have observed that my grown sons, all very mature and healthy, take about 20 minutes to slide into their historic roles whenever we’re together.
Michelle, the Rx that resonated with me most is #3~remembering the reason you gather. In our family, all of us older adults (few now) grew up together as one family. My cousins are my brothers, and their children are like my own in some ways. When I focus on the joy of Christmases past with the warmth and strong bond, then disagreements can be swept away. Our relationships are what matter.
Thank you for this timely reminder.
What a perfect post! I’ve had to learn to let go of expectations and perfections to embrace the relationships. Our holidays aren’t Pinterest-perfect, but they are filled with love and laughter. Two things I’ll take over the perfect pictures for Instagram.