We are coming up on another holiday season and for many of us, it means dealing with lots of hassles and headaches related to traveling on busy roads and crowded airports, shopping for gifts for people you may not even like that much and worst of all, arguing with family members about everything from politics to the age old question of whether to serve canned or freshly made cranberry sauce. 

The stressors related to these activities can pile up and reduce even Clark Griswold’s holiday cheer to something more like an appetite for destruction. Remember that the stress of all that comes with family gatherings makes it more likely that disagreements can get out of hand. Even if we’re not overtly feeling stressed, we probably have stress hormones associated with our fight or flight response circulating in our system and when that happens we are much more likely to lose our temper, misinterpret our sister’s facial expression as an attack on the stuffing we spent hours making, or challenge uncle Ned to a knife fight for taking the last drumstick. 

So, what are some strategies for managing the disagreements that inevitably come up whenever people gather? 

  1. Remember that these feelings are temporary and that this will all be over soon enough. One key to managing stress and family conflict is to pay attention to those feelings of frustration when they first start to build up and just say “no” to arguments. It is ok to allow people to be wrong about the things they believe and be humble, you’re not likely to be right about everything either. Just let it go. Knowing when to disengage, or better yet, when not to start an argument to begin with is an important skill in keeping a family gathering a positive experience. 
  2. Try to select the right time and place. Don’t bring up controversial topics like kitty litter in classrooms or COVID conspiracies at the dinner table. Group discussions just add to the possibility that the discussion will get heated, or that some family members will feel attacked by others and those feelings often create the urge to intensify the fight rather than calming things down. If you’re going to have such discussions try to make them one-on-one or in smaller groups where emotions can be managed more productively and where people can find space to agree to disagree.
  3. If things get heated you can try to change the subject either directly or indirectly. For example, rather talking about why you aren’t married yet or why you’re majoring in a worthless degree like communication (my grandfather’s favorite thing to ask me every year), say you’d love to hear the story of how your grandparents met or why some odd family tradition got started in the first place. People love telling the story of their family to each other and to new generations, it helps people feel connected and remember why their family is important to them. It lightens the mood and  you might even learn something new about your family. So redirecting the conversation helps you avoid talking about some sensitive topic AND you get a fun group activity that brings people closer. 
  4. Ok, so things got out of hand and your cousin is saying it’s people like you who are ruining the country. First, try to keep your composure and resist the urge to retaliate or escalate with reciprocal insults. There is no “winning” in this kind argument, everyone loses. You can either excuse yourself by saying, “I think this has gotten a little heated, I’m going to take a walk and cool off.” Or maybe, “Cousin, we’re family, I don’t want to fight about this, we may not ever agree so let’s get some of grandma’s pumpkin pie and watch the Cowboys lose.” Remember, this is your family and you’ll likely see them again and a respectful relationship, even if your relative is never going to be your bestie, is a key to future enjoyable family gatherings. Calling your cousin a fuzzy headed ninny muggings might be satisfying in the short term but isn’t worth the years of rivalry, resentment and bitterness that can create underlying tension at family gatherings for years.

By Dr. Harry Weger.

Published to Nicholson News on November 2nd, 2023.

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