The holidays are a time for family, friends, and fun. But, for some people, they can also be a time of stress and tension. Are you tired of dealing with disagreements over the holidays? Whether you are dealing with difficult family members or just tense topics and differing points of view, you’re not alone. 48% of Americans say they feel more stressed during December. To help you navigate the relationship stressors that may pop up during the holiday season, here are some tips for dealing with disagreements over the holidays and having difficult conversations with family members. We’ll cover everything from differing points of view to microaggressions and racist comments so that you will be prepared to preserve your peace and joy this holiday season.
Disclaimer: I am not a therapist. This post is purely for educational purposes. If you need personalized guidance managing family conflict in healthy ways or believe you may be in an abusive relationship, please seek the help of a trained professional.
Why does December feel so stressful?
The holiday season can be a stressful time for many. You’ve got the expectation of lavish gifts and festivities, a jam-packed schedule, and the pressure to do all the things with all the people.
First off, take a deep breath. Regardless of where you are and what holiday you celebrate in December and January, most of our holidays originated around a celebration of the return of the sun (longer days) and a celebration of the harvest.
Hear this: we are supposed to be celebrating the blessings we already have. Not filling our homes with new junk, stress, and debt.
It’s ok to say no to holiday stress and put down the expectations that feel too heavy. You can say no to the traditions that no longer enrich your life and forge a new path. Give yourself the gift of mental health instead.
Yes, there will be people who disagree with your choices and push back. These tips will help you successfully deal with disagreements over the holidays and navigate relationships with difficult family members.
Tips for Dealing with Difficult Family Members Over the Holidays
To set yourself up for success and avoid family conflict you need to start your stress management long before you hop in the car to begin your holiday travel to visit relatives.
3 Actions to Take Before Conflict Arises
Taking proactive steps to prevent conflict is key to enjoying the holidays with your family. By taking steps to get in the right mindset before disagreements arise, you can help create a more peaceful and enjoyable holiday atmosphere.
Take Care of Yourself
Self-care is always important but in seasons of high stress and high expectations, stress management becomes even more vital to your well-being. Self-care can look different for everyone. Essentially, you are incorporating healthy activities that bring joy and comfort into your daily routine. If you need a list of ideas, download these:
We all know it is impossible to pour from an empty cup and yet we keep trying to do it.
If you find yourself overwhelmed by the very idea of December, you need to prioritize self-care. Take the time to figure out what your heart and soul need so that you can enter into the holiday season as your best self. A frazzled, burnt-out you won’t be able to handle big emotions well. Be sure that you are regulated before you put yourself into a tense situation (like family gatherings with difficult family members).
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Setting clear boundaries and realistic expectations is essential when dealing with difficult family members over the holidays. However, setting boundaries is going to look different for everyone.
(If the entire idea of healthy boundaries is new for you, gift yourself the book Boundaries by John Townsend and Henry Cloud. Future you will thank you.)
Setting boundaries could mean declaring certain topics off-limits if you know certain topics are simply too triggering to discuss calmly. If someone oversteps that boundary and begins talking about it anyway, you can always choose to change the subject.
It could mean taking a break from your traditional family gatherings to give yourself time to heal and grow.
Setting personal boundaries could mean having a safe word or phrase that lets the rest of the family know it’s time to leave without needing to go into details.
The idea of upholding boundaries essentially means having a structure or safeguards in place to ensure that everyone can stay physically and emotionally safe during holiday gatherings and in regular life.
This may seem like a silly tip but truly listening is a dying art in our society.
When we disagree with someone, we immediately ball up our fists and prepare our rebuttal. Yet, when you are busy thinking about what you want to say back- you stop actually listening to the other person. You are focused on your rebuttal, not the speaker.
Respect, empathy, and true listening are the keys to shifting a could-have-been disagreement into an enlightening conversation. There is value in learning to see all sides of a situation.
Here’s what active listening looks like:
- Use nonverbal communication to show you are interested and truly engaged in the conversation.
- Focus all your attention on hearing the words coming out of the other person’s mouth, not on formulating your response, checking your phone, or on other conversations around you.
- Summarize what you hear them say to ensure you are truly understanding.
- Ask helpful, not judgemental, questions.
- Seek to understand, not debate or prove who is right. (Notice I didn’t say agree- just understand their point of view.)
Active listening is hard. It takes some serious practice.
Don’t wait until you are in the middle of a heated debate to hone your new listening skills. Practice intently listening to conversations all the time. It will improve your relationships and come in very handy when dealing with difficult family members.
Dealing with Disagreements Over the Holidays
You’ve done your prep work and shown up to the family gathering calm, well-rested, and in good cheer. Yet, even with all of your safeguards in place, certain family members start pushing your buttons and the conversation gets heated, once again. Yet, this time it can end differently. Here is how to successfully navigate the tension:
Step 1: Keep Emotions in Check
When others make triggering statements, it is easy to let our emotions take control and shut off our thinking brain. Once emotions are calling the shots, the conversation is as good as over. You will likely say or do things you regret and no one will walk away a better, more enlightened person because of your chat.
If you can instead use your safety plan and stay calm, you will think more clearly, make better decisions and possibly be able to learn or share new perspectives around a tense issue.
This could mean taking a few deep breaths when you feel your body begin to tense up, excusing yourself from the dinner table to provide space to cool off, or using active listening and empathy to de-escalate the situation.
(The book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenburg offers an amazing framework for using listening and clear communication to disarm tense situations.)
Step 2: Shift your Focus
One of the best ways to stay calm during a family conflict is to detach from the argument and choose not to take it personally.
Instead of focusing on how you can win or convince the other person to agree with you, focus on trying to understand why they think and feel the way they do.
I love the quote, “We don’t see things as they are but as we are” by ANAÏS NIN.
You cannot expect someone who hasn’t lived your life experiences to see life as you do. Yet, unless we are willing to enter into difficult situations and conversations and share our stories, none of us will ever have the opportunity to grow.
You are not trying to win an argument. You are planting seeds and new perspectives. If you have the opportunity to calmly share stories that have helped you reach a different conclusion, do so.
You’re probably thinking, “You don’t know my _________. He or she never listens.”
If the conversation is already heated, you’re right, no one is listening. Yet, if you can stay calm, listen intently, and truly seek to understand their point of view, the outcome might look slightly different than it has before.
Don’t walk into the gathering ready to fight. Walk through the door willing to listen, learn and lean into discomfort. It takes two to tango, as they say. Lean into the dance instead of running from it.
However, if the conversation feels more like a never-ending barrage of critiques, that is not a healthy productive conversation. It is ok to excuse yourself from the situation and then use your safety plan to get yourself back to a calm state of mind.
Step 3: Agree to Disagree
Remember, you are not trying to win, convert or convince. You are listening, learning, and calmly sharing stories of life experiences that have helped you draw a different conclusion.
Although using facts and figures may feel like a stronger argument, stay away from being a walking textbook. In the world of fake news and misinformation, we are naturally inclined to doubt facts and question the source of information that doesn’t align with our beliefs.
It is much harder to argue with a story the person you are talking to lived. LA Times says stories help people “simulate and understand social experiences they’ve never personally gone through.”
The reality is, you and your difficult family member won’t see eye to eye after one conversation at that is OK. Your goal isn’t to make them see things the way you do. The goal is to give them a peek into a life that does not mirror theirs so that they can remember their reality isn’t the only reality. We have to stop making assumptions about each other. Not everyone knows what you know. Not everyone has seen what you’ve seen. Let them in and give them a chance to see things in a new way.
Agree to disagree but not with hostility and anger, with empathy and hope. You don’t have to agree today, or ever, to be civil and kind. Arguments were not meant to divide us. They are opportunities to expand our points of view, learn from one another, and grow as human beings.
Conflict is not bad. Conflict is an opportunity.
Abusive Relationships vs Disagreements
I realize that all of this advice sounds very lovey-dovey and beautiful on paper. In real life, it is hard. In some cases, it can even be harmful to spend time with difficult family members. Please note that this advice does not apply to abusive relationships of any kind.
Abusive relationships are characterized by one person wielding power and control over another. The abuser makes decisions for the victim, seeks to control them, isolates them from others, and may use physical or emotional abuse to maintain their grip on power.
Abusive relationships are dangerous. You should get away from them as fast as possible, even if the abuser is a family member.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, get help. Within the US, you can call 800.799.SAFE (7233) or go to the abuse hotline website.
Conflict is OK
I’m sure we’ve all heard stories of people cutting off “toxic” family members. I wholeheartedly agree that we need to preserve our safety and give ourselves, and our families, time and space when necessary. Yet, some are using the term “toxic” very liberally and some have begun excluding anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs or ideals.
Many families, if not all families have differences. Differences around politics and religion are generally not grounds for cutting ties with someone. It can, however, be a beautiful space for productive conversations if both parties decide to approach it that way.
We cannot put ourselves, or our kids, in a bubble of same-ness. It is not healthy for any of us to never interact with people who challenge us. One way to create change and foster flexible thinking is to interact with people who don’t share our belief system. Psychologists call this the contact hypothesis.
We can’t prevent our kids from ever dealing with or seeing conflict. Instead of cutting it out of their lives, we need to teach them to confront and deal with conflict.
I love Brené Brown’s advice for connecting with people, even if you don’t particularly enjoy being in their presence. Ask yourself, is this person is doing the best they can? (I am going to add in with what they know and the life experiences they’ve had.)
You can’t judge someone based on your course curriculum if you aren’t even in the same class. Try to see people with empathy instead of judgment. I promise those triggering conversations will start to lose their sting.
What about racism and microaggressions?
Whew. This is a big one. As a white woman, my answer is directed to other white people. If you are a person of color, do what you need to to keep yourself safe and skip over this entire section because I cannot speak to your lived experiences.
If you are a white person, your job is to speak up and point out microaggressions and racist remarks. No matter how uncomfortable it is, no matter how much it kills the mood, no matter who rolls their eyes. As a person committed to embracing diversity, breaking down harmful cycles, and creating change, it is your job to speak up.
As insane as it may seem to you, often the people making these comments don’t realize they are racist in nature. White privilege still exists because we were raised and trained not to see it.
(Listen to this podcast episode with Brian Lowery to learn more.)
If you have reached the point in your antiracist journey where you do notice microaggressions, it means you have taken the time to do the work, strip off the blinders of your own cultural lens, and learn to see the world in a new way. Most white people haven’t bothered to do that work. They don’t believe it is necessary because it doesn’t feel or seem necessary in their everyday lives. Help them see it.
That doesn’t mean you are going to dive into the conversation with fury and denounce everyone as heartless, racist jerks. Instead, use the advice above and some of these phrases to reflect back what you heard them say or ask to learn more:
Responses for Microaggressions
- What did you mean by that comment?
- I am confused by what you said, can you explain more?
- What facts are you basing that comment on?
- I’m sorry I must have misunderstood. What did you say?
- Tell me more about that…
If you’d like more ideas, here is a list of common microaggressions and specific responses to each one.
Then, maintaining your calm, composed self you explain why you see the world differently using personal stories or stories you have been told directly from the source as often as possible.
Dealing with difficult relatives and disagreements over the holidays is never fun but you can turn hard conversations, and even conflicts, into opportunities for growth with the right mindset and strategies.
Bring your best self to the family gathering, armed with boundaries and fortified with self-care and a safety plan. Then, when disagreements arise, keep your emotions in check. Focus on planting seeds of new perspectives instead convincing the other person to agree with you. Detach yourself enough from the situation enough to be able to agree to disagree and stay calm to keep the conversation productive.
Remember, conflict is not the enemy. When used well, it can provide growth and even healing.