Diffusing Family Conflicts around the Holidays

For many, the holiday season is a joyous time of year full of friends, family, and laughter; however, for some, the thought of spending extended time with certain relatives can evoke feelings of dread and anxiety. Dealing with difficult people can be a challenge, especially when those difficult people are related to you by either blood or marriage. Below you will find several ideas on how to best diffuse potential conflictual situations with grace and poise.

The Criticizer: There is usually one in every family, the person who tends to point out everyone’s faults and criticize even the most delicious family meal. When interacting with the criticizer, it is typically best to not take the slights personally and remember that it takes two to tango. Remember that the criticizer may not fully be aware of their tendency to put others down and that those who tend to criticize are typically not comfortable themselves. So instead of responding with an equally disrespectful quip, you might consider remaining silent as silence can often be a powerful statement on its own. You might also consider taking preventative measures by ensuring the individual feels included and appreciated by either being particularly complementary or attentive to the individual. If silence does not seem to help control the comments or ignoring the comments is not possible, you can politely confront the individual and enlist their “help.” For example, after pulling the criticizer aside you could say, “So-and-So, I need your help with something. This year we are trying to really focus on the positives aspects of our lives and it would be fantastic if you could help us model positive thinking for the kids. I know you are great at making observations, so I figured you would be one of the best family members to enlist in our positive thinking plan.”

The Amateur Politician: One surefire way to create family drama is to engage in any conversation where you know several family members disagree, politics being one of the front-runners of conflict starters. Instead of engaging in emotionally charged conversation topics, it may be better to change the subject to something more benign such as movies, television shows, or new books. If you find that the amateur politician does not want to deviate from their beloved topic, you could pull them aside (e.g. ask for a little help in the kitchen) and politely let them know that you are trying to keep the peace this holiday season and that their help would be greatly appreciated. You could even ask them if they want to decide on a fun family game to play to help them feel needed and important. It is strongly advised not to engage the amateur politician in any sort of debate, as you will not change their mind no matter how informed you may be on a subject matter. For many individuals, the debate itself is what they crave not truly learning and listening to another’s point of view.

Your Complete Opposite: In some families, there are two people who are so completely different it is amazing that they are even part of the same gene pool. Sometimes these opposites get along great and find each other fascinating; other times, these opposites collide like a chemistry experiment gone wrong. If you are confronted with your archenemy each holiday season you might consider the following tips. You are only in control of your actions and reactions, meaning you must start with changing your response if you hope to decrease conflict. This does not mean that you must put up with abusive behavior; however, the use of tact, silence, and simple statements such as, “everyone has a valid opinion” or “I can see how you see the situation that way” can help control the friction between you two. If necessary, you might consider having someone with you when interacting with this individual to add a buffer and help take the focus off of you. Finally, remember that conflict usually arises because of a dynamic between two people not because one of you is right and one of you is wrong. Keeping in mind that when you engage another person in a power struggle you yourself then become part of the equation, just as you make-up traffic when stuck on I-495 at rush hour.

Finally, even the most loving, close-knit families can begin to grate on each others’ nerves after several days together, so it is normal to find yourself needing a break from all of the family festivities. Making sure you give yourself time away from family to recoup and reenergize is an excellent way to prevent blow-ups and also models good self-care to younger family members. Also, when appropriate, humor can help lighten the mood at any occasion and can help you cool yourself down. Watching funny movies or telling funny stories can not only brighten the situation, but can also help bring families together; just make sure the funny stories are not at another’s expense. Finally, give yourself permission to just go with the flow. Many individuals tend to plan every moment of family time because they are worried their guests will be bored; however, planning each day by the minute can increase stress, increase conflict, and decrease family fun. Holidays are meant to be fun, so make sure you schedule yourself some fun time whether it is with the entire family or alone at the spa.

Mary Kathleen Hill, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist