How to Successfully Navigate the Holidays and Family Conflict

Updated on September 10, 2019
Nancy Owens profile image

Nancy does not believe that the holiday season is the time for intervention or for families to separate off into groups to complain.

Read on for suggestions for maintaining everyone's sanity during what should be a celebratory season.
Read on for suggestions for maintaining everyone's sanity during what should be a celebratory season. | Source

Are You Worried About Family Conflicts at Your Holiday Gathering?

Worrying about family conflict and holiday gatherings can put a huge strain on us during what is supposed to be a festive season. It seems like the important holidays bring out both the best and worst in ourselves and others. Most people cherish family and togetherness, but dread having long-standing family issues arise when everyone is in the same house at the same time. If this describes your family, it helps to know you are not alone.

Keep reading for ideas on how to keep family relations running smoothly for special holidays and celebrations. This article includes tips for handling the following situations:

  • Alcohol and Substance Abuse During Holiday Celebrations
  • Ongoing Conflict Issues With Family Members at Christmas or Thanksgiving
  • Christmas, Domestic Violence, and Verbal Abuse

Do Not Hesitate to Get Help

Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline information and support that will enable you to make the right choices for you and your family. The numbers are: 1−800−799−SAFE (7233) or TTY 1−800−787−3224 or (206) 518-9361 (Video Phone Only for Deaf Callers.)

Alcohol and Substance Abuse During Holiday Celebrations

Thousands of families have one or more member who abuses alcohol or other substances. You must realize that the holiday is not the time for intervention and neither is it a day for people separating off into groups to complain and gripe about the offending party.

In these situations, you do your best not to let it ruin the day. For example, you know that Uncle Charlie will get lip-walking drunk. The best you can do is to keep him from spilling, tripping, and passing out in his mashed potatoes. He is family, though, and if you feel like he should be included then try the following tips:

  • As soon as the person arrives, gauge the level of intoxication.
  • Try to avoid topics that will set him off.
  • If he does start getting loud, obnoxious, or even angry, try redirecting his thought process by asking his advice on a topic that he truly knows something about.
  • Ask his opinion on whether or not the turkey is done, or if you put too much spice in the apple pie.
  • Try to get the inebriated person into a comfortable chair or see if you can get him or her to take a nap.
  • As soon as you know they are a little too full of whatever they choose to use, start feeding them some of their favorite treats.
  • Call them into the kitchen and get them snacking on foods they enjoy. Let them think they are taste testing. With any luck, they will get full and fall asleep in a comfortable bed while waiting for dinner to be served.

You could also try to limit the alcohol consumption, but many alcoholics just bring their own bottle or get tanked up before they arrive. However, drunk people do tend to want to fall asleep after a big meal, and this can work to your advantage.

These tips may not always work, or work for people who use substances like meth (they won’t feel hungry), but they can help you get through the day.

Last but not least, if a drug user goes totally out of control, or you suspect they have overdosed, do not be afraid to call the police or an ambulance. Your safety, and the safety of the user if of primary importance. You can also try calling a drug or alcohol abuse hotline for tips on dealing with the individual BEFORE the holiday.

Be a Light in the Dark

We can all be a light for someone less fortunate by being the good example someone else needs to see. It is equally important, however, to allow someone else to shine their healing light on you.
We can all be a light for someone less fortunate by being the good example someone else needs to see. It is equally important, however, to allow someone else to shine their healing light on you. | Source

What If The Substance Abuser Is a Minor?

As the party host and homeowner or leaseholder, you should not delay in addressing the situation. For example, you are in the coat closet and as you shuffle the coats around drugs fall out of the coat pocket of a minor child. You must take action.

Stay calm. Be direct. Confiscate drugs immediately. Talk to the youth privately. Assess degree of inebriation.Tell only those who have a real need to know (child's parents or EMS only). Discuss consequences next day. This allows for cooling off.

Ongoing Conflict Issues With Family Members at Holiday Events

Big holiday events like Christmas, New Years, and Thanksgiving, present special challenges if your family members have past hurts that have not healed. They are also difficult if there are ongoing disagreements about behaviors, lifestyle, or even a family member’s choice of spouse or romantic partner. When your holiday represents a time for love and peace and hope for the future, the event takes on a highly emotional component and these feelings of needing or wanting to be accepted, understood, and heard can intensify for all members of the family, no matter which side of the issue they are on.

If you are hosting the gathering, you do have some options for controlling the flow. One common hot-button issue is when you have a family member who is often late, and that dish they were going to bring? Forget about it. Since every host wants his or her party to go off without a hitch, having to wait dinner for a couple of hours because So and So didn’t do her laundry and has nothing to wear can have a disastrous outcome in terms of the quality of food that gets put on the table. If this resembles your situation, save yourself and your other guests.

Don’t get mad. Don’t get even. You can try one of two things:

  1. Schedule the dinner for an hour later than advertised, or just begin the meal whether she is present or not. By taking a deliberate, calm approach you will feel less stress or irritation.
  2. When delegating potluck assignments, you can talk with that person ahead of time to gauge his or her level of interest in participating. Sometimes people have really good reasons for falling down in the potluck arena. Maybe they had to work 13 days straight just to get the holiday off work, and the hectic schedule included back-to-back shifts for the past three days.

Family Pets Can Feel the Family Conflict

Hunter is taking a pause in her bathing routine. Family pets even know when members of their human pack are at odds with one another.
Hunter is taking a pause in her bathing routine. Family pets even know when members of their human pack are at odds with one another. | Source

Aunt Mary’s Predictable, but Highly Critical Tangents—The Griper

Do you have one or more relative that routinely gripes non-stop about issue after issue? It could be anything from the quality of shows on television, teenagers and their cell phones, how you cook the meal, or even the décor in your home. If this resembles your relative (and most families have at least one person like this) you can try a couple of things to make it more bearable.

  1. Enlist the help of the griper. Sometimes people gripe simply because they can’t think of anything else to talk about, or as a way of trying to find common agreement on a subject. When you ask them to help with a simple activity, or even ask their opinion on some inconsequential subject, they feel included and you divert their focus onto something else. If you do it enough times, they may forget about their tangent topic entirely.
  2. Another thing you can try is to just tuck them into a corner of the kitchen and let them talk your leg off as you cook the holiday dinner. Use interjections to keep them talking such as, “Oh, really!” When they make the dramatic point. You could even take turns with your spouse or other key family members so that one person doesn’t have to absorb all the negativity. But, whatever you do, remember that in order for this to work, it has to be subtle and done in a way that is caring. If not, the person will catch on and probably get seriously irritated with you.

Unhealed Family Conflict

If you have family members who do not get along, and the reasons are very hurtful and deep seated, this can have a serious and negative impact on everyone at the gathering. One thing you can try is to get each one involved in some part of the preparations, but separate from one another. Try to think of things they can do well, and if possible, in different areas of the home. Both will feel included, but not pitted against each other.

If the conflict is very serious, try opening a conversation with each person a week or two prior to the gathering. You might say something like, “I get how deeply you were hurt by Uncle Roy last year. What are your ideas for handling this situation this year?” To Uncle Roy you might say, “I get your point about the issues between you and So and So, but I worry about how things will go at Christmas. How can we best deal with things so that we don’t have a big upset?” If sincerely asked for their opinions in a private conversation, you might end up with some really useful input. It also allows each one to put some restrictions on themselves rather than have someone else put a restriction on them.

Paint Your Christmas Wonderland Scene

This holiday activity is something everyone can do, from tots to grandparents. Put a plastic table cloth over a card table and ask kids and grownups alike to paint Christmas, or even Thanksgiving. Enlist the big kids to help the little kids.
This holiday activity is something everyone can do, from tots to grandparents. Put a plastic table cloth over a card table and ask kids and grownups alike to paint Christmas, or even Thanksgiving. Enlist the big kids to help the little kids. | Source

Christmas, Domestic Violence, and Verbal Abuse

If you are being abused by a spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, or other family members, you have a choice to make. How will you write the rest of your story? Will you choose to move on from the relationships that are causing you pain? Will you change your own belief system? During the holidays statistics show that these incidences are more prevalent. When you live with the person who is abusing you, it probably isn’t going to stop just because the holiday has come. Sometimes it does, just for the day, but that is the exception that proves the rule.

Do reach out to a professional for support. Sadly, other family members who are close to the situation are often not the best ones to give you the support you need. Hotlines are a valuable resource. Most women are reluctant to leave their abusive spouses near or during the holidays unless they are hauled away in an ambulance or something of that nature. We women will often do almost anything to try to have a nice holiday for our family.

If you are in that situation, know that it is possible to separate from your spouse, and to create a good life for you and your children. There are people out there who will help you to figure things out, but know that it will take effort and commitment to create a better life. Trying to change the abusive person is like trying to hold water in a bucket full of holes. Again, it is not often that the abusive person ever decides to change.

Adult Victims of Family Abuse Who Do not Live With the Abuser(s)

If this is you, and every holiday is spent being criticized for simply existing, and just walking into the holiday home causes your stomach to knot up, know that you can choose to spend the holiday elsewhere. Will family members gripe about your choice? Most certainly. They may even accuse you of ruining their holiday. But if you go and they just make you feel miserable, it is the same. Don’t be afraid to accept an invitation to a friend’s home, or even to choose to spend the day volunteering in a soup kitchen.

One woman who finally worked up the courage to stay away from her family and instead volunteer to help feed the homeless said this, “I thought going to that shelter was going to be the worst day of my life. Instead, it turned out to be the best Christmas I have ever experienced. The people liked me. They kept saying how good a job I did and how grateful they were for my help. We laughed and sang Christmas songs and everyone got a gift. Mine was a wooden spoon. Now, every time I look at that silly spoon I feel loved and wanted.”

Do You Know Someone Whose Life Has Been Impacted by Domestic Violence?

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Nancy Owens


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