You can avoid family conflict during the holidays (or at least minimize it). Avoiding family drama during the Christmas/holiday season can be a bit of an art, but it is certainly something you can manage. And well.
Imagine: One person (or one person’s wife) ends up resentfully doing most of the organizing, cooking, and work, while another relative imbibes too much and blurts out a dark secret, and then another relative’s child throws an unbearable tantrum. Any single one of these occurrences, not to mention a combination of several, can be all it takes to ruin yet another annual family holiday gathering.
The holidays tend to be stressful for just about anyone. Combine this stress with the fact that some individuals can be thoughtless, inconsiderate, nitpicky, irritating, and sometimes outright spiteful. Worse, many such individuals (yes, including your own family members) never own their own behavior, and really don’t care how hurtful, problematic, or careless with the feelings of others they may be. It is always “someone else’s fault.”
Holiday stress + wanton emotionally reckless behavior. It makes quite the combination, and it’s enough to make everyone else hate the holidays, hate getting the family together and wish they could fast forward the clock past New Year’s.
What Drives it All?
What are some of the dynamics that create an atmosphere ripe for familial holiday conflict? Let’s look at a few:
- “Short fuses.”A family member (or members) is prone to angry outbursts that are typically disproportionate to the situation or to the initial trigger (“I said NO PECANS!! Why can’t you do ANYTHING right???”).
- Opinionated individuals tend to be extremely rigid in their thinking, suspicious without reason, unwilling to concede anything, or seemingly just defiant and argumentative for the sake of it (“I know what I’m talking about, and if you don’t agree with me, you’re an idiot!”).
- Attention hogs. You know him or her. The family member who needs to be the center of attention at all times, who sometimes acts out when offended at feeling left out of any conversations, outings, events, or what have you.
- The buzzkills. Then there are the family members around whom you feel ever physically and emotionally drained, or worse yet, you feel agitated, anxious, unsettled, or upset.
- The martyrs. A relative who loves to play the victim, or who feels entitled to receive special treatment. Vindication for perceived injustices and having unreasonable demands met are the sought-after prize for these individuals. All at the expense of others, of course. (“One day you’ll be sorry when I’m gone!”)
- The wound collectors. Fixates on past offenses, slights, mistakes/flaws of others, and is ever ready to bring them back up at the drop of a hat. No forgiveness or forgetting. No peace.
- Irresponsible speech and behavior. A family member who always seems to irritate or hurt others’ feelings, as if the negligent perpetrator feels no obligation whatsoever to “turn on the filter” (“I tell it like it is!”).
- The never-ending family feud. Not nearly as fun as the game show, family feuds among your relatives may be brief outbursts that last a few minutes, or that maybe go on for hours, days, even weeks and months with minimal effort (or even desire) to reconcile or end them.
- Feelings of unhappiness, of being emotionally drained, edginess, lack of fulfillment, worthlessness, etc. You “walk on eggshells,” around the family get-together, constantly on your toes to avoid the next incident that will embarrass you or leave you feeling hurt.
The first thing you should do is recognize that none of this is your imagination. Such individuals may act reasonably one day, but that doesn’t mean you should simply ignore such flagrantly bad habits and behaviors, especially when they hurt you or others. These people need help and should seek out a professional who can help them become more aware of their behavior and manage it better. Meanwhile, you still have to protect yourself. Remember, such incidents can serve as a trigger to set off your own mental illness.
Mind your own boundaries
Here are some suggestions regarding what you can do when dealing with such bad behavior from family members and to help avoid family drama during Christmas break or any other time of year:
- This is no time for therapy. Remember that family time at the holidays is not the time for a therapy session. That is for professionals to handle in private at another appropriate time. Don’t let your holiday cheer be robbed by going for the bait and ending up being drawn into drama that you don’t want.
- Set boundaries. Without being too exacting, determine ahead of time what you will and won’t tolerate. You may have to separate yourself from the group or not attend at all if things start to head south. Do not ease up on your boundaries until inconsiderate behaviors change (e.g., if dinner is scheduled at 6, then start at 6. Latecomers will just be late. No attention hogs, no dramatic entrances, no shows of dominance, etc.). You are under no obligation whatsoever to be victimized.
- See reality for what it is. Words matter little if there is no action behind it to back it up. Don’t just write off hurtful behaviors.
- Taboo topics. Get a consensus upfront regarding what everyone else is willing to discuss and not discuss (e.g., religion, politics). These discussions can tend to bring out the worst in people.
- Taboo behaviors. Some individuals revert to coping mechanisms/behaviors such as binge drinking in order to create a divide in the group, antagonize, or irritate others, and such antics should be squelched beforehand. You can set the rules in your house, but if you and your family are elsewhere, don’t join into the discord.
- Call for help if you need to. If someone gets violent or draws a weapon (especially after drinking/drugging), don’t even hesitate to call the police.
- Safety is not a guarantee. Just because you are with family does not mean you are emotionally/physically/psychologically safe. Watch out for yourself and avoid/avert anything or anyone who might do you harm.
- Plan on having a good time together! Don’t give an audience to someone in the group who insists on hijacking the rest of the group and “holding them hostage.” Don’t give something unsavory a life by giving it your attention. Focus on creating positive memories together with your loved ones.
Awkward and unhappy family moments do happen, even with the best intentions, so don’t feel like you’ve failed if a family holiday get-together goes awry. Be polite, be loving, but be firm in taking care of yourself.
Holidays with the family got you down? It may not be just a case of the “holiday blues.” Depression and anxiety are treatable and manageable. If you or someone close to you need to talk to someone about family dysfunction or other mental health issues that seem overwhelming, we can help. Consider reaching out to our expert team at Solara Mental Health at 844-600-9747.