Handling family conflict at Christmas

Christmas gatherings can be tough. Old relationship dynamics can set in and conflict can emerge.

If you want to experience less stress during your family’s Christmas celebrations, you need to abandon old behaviour patterns. Here are three ways to do this.

Negotiate early

Conflicting expectations can lead to hurt feelings and heated conversations. Don’t assume that everyone shares your beliefs about what makes a happy Christmas. For example, to Angela a Christmas Day spent alone with her partner is the ideal. Her partner, on the other hand, believes that Christmas Day is a time to bring extended family together. Talking about their expectations will help this couple work out how to approach Christmas Day – this year and in the years to come.

Here are some common issues which can trigger conflict in families. Why not deal with them now rather than fighting about them over the holiday season?

  • Where to spend Christmas Day
  • Which friends and family members to include in celebrations
  • Expectations around gift giving
  • Where children of separated parents will spend their time

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Keep your expectations realistic

Avoid magical thinking. If there is unresolved conflict in your family, it won’t vanish on Christmas Day. Accept that disagreements might happen. Aim to hold your personal boundaries firm during Christmas gatherings. Remember that a few cross words don’t ‘ruin’ Christmas lunch. The way you respond to them can.

It can also help to challenge any negative expectations you have of other people. For example, if you expect your mother in law to be overbearing, you’ll unconsciously look for proof that you’re right. At the same time, you might overlook situations in which she sits back and lets others dominate the conversation.

Set relationship goals

It is easier to keep family dynamics positive if you set relationship goals. This involves two simple steps. First, describe the state you want each relationship to be in at the end of the day. Then work out what you need to do to create that state. For example, Mike is sick of arguing with his sister, Rebecca, about how to discipline his children. His relationship goal is to ‘stay calm about Rebecca’s advice’ Steps Mike can take to achieve this include: actively listening to – although not necessarily agreeing with – Rebecca’s comments; redirecting the conversation when it turns to parenting and sitting next to someone else during Christmas lunch.

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