Does this sound like a familiar recipe? Take one family gathered together for the holidays. Add a handful of long-simmering grudges, a pinch of misunderstanding and a sprinkle of resentment – then stir for a simmering stew of family conflict.
If you prefer not to follow this “holiday recipe” for natural stress this year, you’re not alone. Even typically harmonious families sometimes dread spending the holidays, says family relationship expert Janice Poplack, LCSW, pictured right, director of Social Work at The Menninger Clinic.
“People have very high expectations for the holidays as a magical time, but they are also a lot of work, and relationships coming together can be a source of family tension,” she says, adding that travel hassles and changes in routine amp up stress.
Poplack shares the following four ways to prevent family conflict that are within areas of your control this holiday season:
1. Practice how you react. While you can’t stop your sister from dredging up an old argument from the past, or your mother from criticizing how you dress your children, you can change how you respond to hurtful words from family members.
“Especially with family interactions if you don’t react in your usual way, you can stop the usual pattern of defensiveness,” Poplack says. “Just changing the language or changing the dialog can change how others respond.”
2. Take a break. If an argument gets too heated, excuse yourself from the situation if you can. “When emotion escalates, you really aren’t going to resolve anything,” Poplack says. “That is when you can say to your family, ‘I am just going to take a break’ and then go for a walk, go to the park or even into another room – anything you can do to deescalate the situation.” If you can’t leave the house, disengage from the argument by involving yourself in an activity such as reading the paper or listening to music instead of being drawn into the fray.
The way you react to family conflict is especially important for parents who are modeling behavior for their children. “When you don’t engage, you are saying, ‘I’m stabilizing the situation. I’m grounding us. This is not how we talk to each other in our family,’” Poplack says.
3. Go easy on the alcohol. Repeatedly dipping into spiked eggnog isn’t the best strategy for dealing with family issues. Alcohol is a “disinhibitor,” Poplack says, loosening your tongue and your restraint – not a good combination among all ages of family.
If alcohol plays a negative role in your family celebrations, discuss in advance ways to make the holiday less focused on alcohol. For example, consider offering non-alcoholic beverages or maybe have a meal minus alcohol. If your family resists your efforts, or you are a recovering alcoholic, remember you have an option of spending the holidays with sober friends or family.
4. Learn to recognize your triggers. “Stepping out of the family pattern you are in can be very, very difficult,” says Poplack, who recommends scheduling some sessions with a family therapist before the holidays if you want to make a change. Working with a therapist, you can discuss what triggers problems, how you react and practice how to respond to family conflict. “So much of how we respond is automatic, and it comes from an unconscious place,” Poplack says. “We are falling back into our usual defensive mode.”
Learning how to respond less defensively doesn’t mean you won’t ever feel angry, Poplack emphasizes. Anger is a natural response. But learning to express your feelings in a more constructive, less-reactive way can help make the holidays more enjoyable for all.
“To say, ‘I’m stepping out of that cycle for good, and this holiday is an opportunity to start doing that’ is very liberating,” Poplack says.