How to Prevent Family Conflict from Ruining Your Holidays

James came in for our session. His eyes looked pained as he began discussing trepidation surrounding the upcoming holiday season. It was only September. Unease regarding the holidays often beginnings as soon as the weather starts changing.

The holidays are stressful. The frenzied need to shop, prepare food, the atmosphere of holiday cheer reminding people to be ‘cheerful,’ ‘happy,’ to spend money on gifts, to spend time with family — all of these expectations make the season a breeding ground for emotional distress.

How to Prevent Family Conflict from Ruining Your Holidays

That’s not to say that many people don’t enjoy or look forward to the holidays. People do. It’s festive. It’s a time to connect with people we love. To reflect. However, even when people are looking forward to the holidays, they still report concomitant stress.

James’ consternation related to his family. At 59-years old, he had a long history of acrimonious relations with his father. As much as he wanted to be with his family, he knew it meant tension, and likely an argument. James isn’t alone. The question of how to handle contentious relationships comes up frequently as the holidays approach. The good news is, there are some things we can do to make the holiday atmosphere more harmonious.

Practice Gratitude

Gratitude must be remembered and practiced going into the holidays, as well as during the holiday celebrations. There are many people who don’t have any family or money, who describe utter despair around the holidays. If you have family and food, it’s important to step back and think about how fortunate you are. If you know someone who has no family, invite them to your celebration. Send cards. Tell people that you love them. Be thankful. Taking a few minutes to remind yourself what you do have, instead of focusing on what you don’t, helps change your perspective, making it easier to push conflicts aside for the holidays.

Be Flexible and Compromising

Sometimes traditions must be changed. This can be stressful. For example, when adult children get married, there’s a shift in the family structure. Often, this includes changes in family holiday traditions. While trying to reconcile these changes, people often report feeling disappointed, lonely. The adjustment can cause painful reflection about life, about change, about aging. Putting pressure on the family to maintain traditions just causes more stress though, and it’s not going to change the reality: the family structure has changed and accommodations need to be made to the holiday traditions.

Be flexible and understanding, don’t put unnecessary pressure on kids or on yourself; it will only lead to more stress. Share an open dialogue about what each person needs, compromise, and be flexible. Perhaps traditions will be rearranged and, for example, one holiday will be spent with you, and the other with the in-laws. Or perhaps each year will be a different arrangement.

I have learned that when families are open and compromises can be made, a reasonable agreement can be reached.

Walk Away from Arguments

Conflict within the family is usually a result of built-up resentments. Things that happened years ago, without any resolution or discussion, fester under the surface. The smallest trigger can lead to an explosive argument. This often happened when James went home for the holidays.

James described palpable tension between his father and him from the moment he walked through the door. His father used to be insulting, making derogatory statements generously and carelessly, when James was much younger. As an adult, James had tried to talk with his father about it, but his father wouldn’t take responsibility, nor reflect upon his words. This is common. Words left unsaid, years of conflicts unresolved. The tension almost begging to explode.

When we are resentful, the tension is not only emotional, it’s physical. And our most natural inclination is to say something, to rid ourselves of these feelings and the pressure.

But this is the worst thing that we can do. It may feel cathartic in the moment, but it will only escalate conflict. It’s not going to lead to any resolution. You’re not going to get someone to take responsibility for hurting you by yelling. James’ father wasn’t going to hear him because he became angry and raised his voice. And, in the end, people usually report feeling worse after an escalated expression of feeling.

I tell my patients, “In some instances, doing nothing, is doing something.” It takes more strength to let it go. If you can let go, practicing acceptance and forgiveness, you will feel so much better. But for James, like so many of us, this wasn’t easy.

Accept and Let Go

If resentments can’t be talked through we only have two choices: hold onto anger, or let it go. I know it’s hard. It feels like an emotional contradiction to let go of something that has hurt you so much, but the truth is, holding onto the resentment doesn’t hurt the other person, it only hurts you.

When I talked with James, he reported that letting it go felt like he was letting his father get away with what he experienced as mistreatment. We talked about letting go for himself, and how sick the anger made him feel — the way his stomach churned and he felt the blood pumping through his veins, how unhealthy this was for him.

James had a choice: let himself continue to feel sick with resentment, or accept his father’s limitations — and let the anger go. It didn’t mean they ever had to be close. It meant that he would be the stronger person, he would practice letting go of contentious feelings. It meant that they would be able to maintain courteous relations for the holidays.

No one can take from us, emotionally, what we don’t give. Letting go, like gratitude, is a practice in changing the way we think. Instead of focusing on all of the bad, hurtful things, years of arguments and unspoken animosity, think about what you have to be thankful for over the holidays. Enjoy the time, reminding yourself not to waste it holding onto anger, reminding yourself that you do have a choice over how you let someone affect you.

Editor’s note: James’ name was changed to protect his anonymity.

About the Writer

Jacqueline Simon Gunn

Jacqueline is a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist and author. She holds master’s degrees in both forensic psychology and existential/ phenomenological psychology, and has a doctorate in clinical psychology. Her specialties include eating disorders, trauma, interpersonal and relationship difficulties, alternative lifestyles and sports psychology.

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