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family conflict, illustration by Mary Dunn

How to Handle Family Conflict During the Holidays

Keeping the peace without turning into a Grinch.

The hustle and bustle of the holiday season can be pretty overwhelming—there’s the cooking, the cleaning, the shopping, the entertaining and the wrapping, all on top of attempting to run a (somewhat) functional household. Add the tension from family conflicts with certain family members, and the “most wonderful time of the year” can quickly become The Nightmare Before Christmas.

“I started planning for Christmas in September,” laughs Saginaw mom Callie Miller as her three kids squeal happily in the background. “I have four different notebooks and calendars to keep everyone on track.” While planning ahead is a good way to start, sometimes holiday family dynamics test the limits of our preparation. Here’s how to juggle a multitude of responsibilities—and personalitieswithout turning into a total Grinch. 

Manage Expectations

Licensed professional counselor Brittany Stilwell—formerly of Prism Therapy Associates in Dallas, and now at The Mind Parlorbelieves that a big culprit of stress is this commercialized idea of what our family is supposed to look like. “We have these huge ideas of what the holidays should be and how we want our family to be,” she says. 

But, at the end of the day, you’ve still got goofy cousin Eddie who doesn’t understand social cuesYou can’t expect your family members to behave any differently than they normally do. It’s exhausting trying to change and control that.”  

Keeping realistic expectations of your family membersrather than comparing them to a Hallmark moviecan help you to avoid unnecessary emotional distress and family conflict. 

Set Boundaries 

Family gatherings bring a lot to the table. Our favorites are the love, the laughs and the memories, but sometimes long-term grudges and differing political views can pull up a seat as well. Stilwell stresses that it’s important to know how to handle these situations and when to just excuse yourself. 

“Just because you’re capable of putting up with something doesn’t mean that it’s healthy to do so.” 

“There are different kinds of boundaries,” she says. “Some people you only need a picket fence, but others you need a prison wall.” If a subject comes up that you’re uncomfortable with, reinforce your boundaries by letting your family know that disrespecting boundaries comes with consequences.  

“Saying ‘I’m not going to have this conversation with you, and if you continue I will leave the room’ tells them that you have set your boundary, and leaving the room is the consequence of crossing that,” Stilwell says. “Just because you’re capable of putting up with something doesn’t mean that it’s healthy to do so.” 

Fort Worth mom of four, who asked to go by “J” for the sake of anonymity, says she’s learned over the years that you can set boundaries for yourself, but you can’t expect everyone to respect them. “My mother-in-law and I don’t exactly see eye to eye,” J reveals. “I’ve put up my own boundaries on what I will and will not tolerate, but I can’t get her to do the same.” 

Her advice to mothers dealing with the same issue is to try not to take anything personally. “You may want to address it, but sometimes that only adds to the conflict instead of diffusing it,” explains J. When she senses a disagreement arising, she steps outside for a breather before returning to the party.

“Try to think of something about the holidays that makes you happy while you’re outside alone,” she suggests. “That way when you come back inside, you’re better mentally equipped to handle snide remarks or what you perceive as sugar-coated insults.” 

Actively Communicate 

It’s not a recent revelation that good communication can help with relational conflict. Stilwell stresses this to her clients, adding that poor communication from the receiving end of your message isn’t your burden to bear. 

J has experienced this with her ex-husband, the father of her firstborn. “Keeping the peace with her dad during the holiday season was somewhat difficult because it all depended on his mood,” she says. To keep conflict at bay, communicating well with each other was a must. “I tried to only plan events with her when it was my weekend so I wouldn’t be impeding on his time, and if it was just unavoidable, he knew way in advance,” she says.  

Give Yourself a Break 

Sometimes the right environment needs to be fostered in order to avoid family conflict and keep the peace. Miller says she often sets up creative stations around her house to keep the kids entertained. 

“I always try to have an activity for them to do to keep them distracted for a while and give the parents a little bit of a break,” she says. “Last year I set up a cookie station for Christmas and let them decorate their own.” Giving the littles something to keep them occupied while you connect with relatives alleviates some of the chaos that might otherwise put you on edge.  

Stilwell says that managing family during the holidays ultimately comes down to respecting your limits. “I have so many parents come to me asking, ‘How do I do it all?’” she says. “My answer is, ‘You don’t have to.’” 

Don’t Lose Your Head

Taking care of yourself mentally is linked to reduced stress and can be helpful when handling conflict with family members, but it can be difficult to wind down and refocus on your own. There are several apps available that are quick and accessible when you need to take a few minutes to regroup. The Calm app carries segments as short as three minutes to guide you through self-meditation and relaxation. Stop, Breathe & Think asks how you’re feeling and delivers a short meditation exercise tailored to your emotionsBoth apps are available for iOS and Android and offer additional features for a fee.

RELATED: A Counselor’s Tips for Battling Seasonal Depression

This article was originally published in December 2019.

Illustration by Mary Dunn