Dealing with Conflict Over Christmas

Why does conflict arise more easily over the Christmas season?

Whilst Christmas is supposed to bring joy and peace on Earth, the reality for many is a time of family conflict and feeling stressed. The commercialisation of Christmas and financial stress, the pressure and expectations to deliver a ‘perfect’ Christmas dinner, as well as sorting out decorations and gifts and having the kids out of routine, over-excited and hyped up on sugar all contribute.

Also, for many, Christmas is a time where grief may resurface for those who aren’t around to celebrate with us, bringing up feelings of loss and loneliness.

This year is a little different and we will likely have to adapt the way we celebrate, which may bring emotions of frustration and disappointment, or feeling left out of celebrations or receiving gifts. The perfectionists among us may struggle with Christmas not being as it ‘should’ and may feel more anxious and out of control. All of these may heighten emotions and the potential for conflict. 

Preparing ahead of time to reduce the chance of conflict

Whilst large gatherings look unlikely this year, planning your diary with decent space for quieter time will help. Try not to plan back-to-back get-togethers, including virtual ones, and set an end time to meetups. Plan in advance together as a family and consider that you might have varying preferences and approach the festive season differently (such as being more of an introvert or extrovert, more of a planner or more spontaneous). Try to share chores rather than the pressure all being on one person, and setting up a spare TV can stop arguments about what to watch.

With children, it can help to set expectations and give them a clear schedule of when they have ‘on screen’ time, so they join in with the family at important moments. Plan some downtime within each day to do something restorative (such as going for a walk, having a bath or reading). Being overstimulated, irritated by too much noise/activity or feeling exhausted may make conflict more likely to occur. Try not to drink too heavily as feeling disinhibited may increase the chance of arguments. If perfectionism is an issue for you, consider relaxing your ideas about how Christmas ‘should’ go this year and try to be more flexible, which may mean some conflicts can pass.

Finally, with financial pressures for many, consider who you really want to give gifts to, and only do what you can afford. Consider a spirit of gratitude rather than getting caught up on the pressure to spend lots and find the ‘perfect’ gift. You could always suggest secret Santa, setting a spending limit, donating to charity, or making Christmas promises for things you can offer help with as acts of kindness.

Strategies to help deal with conflict

1. Think about your own responses

Remember that it is unrealistic to expect to never argue, especially when people are feeling stressed and under pressure. When conflict arises we all feel threatened and helpless. The ‘fight, flight or freeze’ instinct kicks in and conflict is sustained by a chain of actions and reactions. We cannot control others but we can learn to control and change how we respond and the meaning we attach to what happens.

2. Handle conflict by aiming to reach a solution

Try not to focus on being ‘right’ but rather sharing your view and ensuring that you understand the other persons’ perspective. E.g. ‘I understand what you’re saying/feeling – I am sorry you feel that way, even if I don’t agree with it.’ Telling someone they have done wrong will usually lead to them defending or attacking, rather than listening or understanding. The aim isn’t to point out how ‘wrong’ the other person is, you are arguing to resolve something. Stay on topic, and you will get to a resolution faster. Apologising can show confidence and being focused on finding a solution.

3. Explain how you are feeling

Try to provide further insights by saying ‘I’ to explain your emotions, instead of the more accusatory ‘You’. E.g. ‘I get upset by…’ (instead of ‘you upset me by…’). Try not to use ‘always’ or ‘never,’ as exaggerated statements often lead to the other person reminding you of exceptions and undermining your point, and you may be able to explore new ideas that can transform the situation.

4. Take a step back

If it all gets too much, try getting out of the house and taking a walk to unwind, or give some mindfulness a go in the moment. Notice how you are labelling the person as ‘a problem’. Try to see past your anger and see the person with issues just like you. Pay attention to their words, meaning, and body language. And try to notice your own views, reactions and feelings.

5. Try to set an example for any children present

Although you should try not to fight in front of children, seeing parents disagree and make up is not damaging when done constructively and the argument ends well. Children who see people arguing and resolving it go on to model these important life skills of debating and negotiating skills. They, therefore, won’t panic when disagreements occur and will feel able to assertive and say ‘no’ to peer pressure.

6. Set intentions

Think about your values as a person, what you want to model to your family, and how you want to be known for behaving and treating others. If you don’t resolve a conflict in the way you would like to, go easy on yourself and set an intention to try a different approach in future.

Longer-term support if family conflict is an ongoing issue

  • Mindfulness can help to deal with difficult experiences. This is the capacity to become aware of what is happening in our inner/outer life. It is the capacity to be present, aware, and look in a more detached way at what we are experiencing (both pleasant and unpleasant).
  • Couples or family therapy can help to identify patterns of communicating and relating to one another and work on changing these.
  • Individual therapy can help to think about what your style of attachment and conflict is, to identify patterns and to build helpful strategies for managing anger and intense emotions.

Useful resources

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This article was published on 18th November 2020.

Dr Laura Keyes is a clinical psychologist, registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and British Psychological Society (BPS). She runs a private practice offering psychological therapy and assessments for neurodiversity to children and adults in Bedfordshire: drlaurakeyes.com
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