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Seasonal Stressors: Managing Conflict at Family Gatherings

holiday gathering

While the holiday season is supposed to be a time of cheer and gathering with loved ones, for some, it may be a time of anger and frustration from heated interactions with family members. “Season’s greetings” can often be followed by confrontation — picking a fight with a relative, debating controversial subjects, and dealing with family members who overstay their welcome.

Whether your family has worked out a COVID-19 safety plan that allows you to gather in person, or you’ve opted to meet over Zoom again this year, the interpersonal tensions can still be the same. But conflict can be alleviated through a few simple tricks, along with some potential boundary setting.

Keeping Conversations Merry and Bright

Lily Brown, PhD, director at the Center for Treatment and Study of Anxiety in Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine, describes a relationship like a bank. You can put investments in a bank and make withdrawals. However, when we make a withdrawal from a relationship, such as setting boundaries, this can remove an element of closeness and trust. It’s important to reinvest to maintain that relationship, which can be done through validation.

“I think of it as finding the kernel of truth in what the other person is saying in their viewpoint,” said Brown. “You can validate someone’s experience and still disagree with them. It’s a way to figure out why it makes sense that the other person sees the world in the way they do.”

In the spirit of giving, Brown recommends using the GIVE scale to help maintain heartwarming interactions with loved ones. Even if you disagree with a relative’s perspective, or just want to keep the conversation surface level, following the scale can allow both parties to walk away feeling like they had a meaningful discussion.

  • Be GENTLE with that person. Don’t go into the conversation with the goal to change their mind or pick a battle with them.
  • Show INTEREST in what that person is sharing. This can be done through nonverbal validation, such as being alert and simply listening to your family member. You can also reflect what they’re saying by echoing back what they share. You’re not agreeing with what they’re saying, but it’s demonstrating that you’re hearing them.
  • Find a way to VALIDATE what they’re saying. You can validate based on their history — what they have gone through in their lives that makes them have this viewpoint. Put yourself in their shoes and try to understand why they see the world this way.
  • And lastly, have an EASY manner. Try to keep the conversation lighthearted and engage in “radical genuineness” — seeing your relative as an equal and showing that you understand them. You can provide validating statements, such as “I can see how you feel that way,” or “I’m here for you.”

Creating Boundaries and Clarifying Comfort Levels

In addition to the GIVE scale approach, there are other ways to manage potentially tense family situations. Imagine this scenario: You just finished up a family dinner and you’re ready to go to bed. You don’t want to seem rude and tell your family members to leave, but you start giving cues — you’re cleaning up the table, you start yawning, you tell your kids that it’s time to go to bed, but to no avail, your relatives are not taking the hints. How could this have been prevented?

Brown suggests setting concrete expectations.

“In the same way that you would send out an invitation to a birthday party, where it has a start and end time, have the same conversation in advance of these family gatherings,” said Brown. “The clearer you can be before the meeting starts, the easier it’s going to be to reduce hurt feelings.”

Along with setting the time frame, you can set boundaries for the types of interactions at a party. Especially in the age of COVID-19, it is important to clarify your comfort levels around people outside of your household. Are you comfortable having a sit-down meal, or would you rather have a socially distanced celebration?

“We often carry around the belief that we should be the type of person to go with the flow, but give yourself permission to set boundaries,” said Brown. “Having preferences is part of the human experience.”

This also pertains to the types of conversations that can be discussed at a gathering. Sensitive topics like politics, religion, and money tend to stir drama in conversation, and family parties can be a hub for these widely debated subjects.

“Unless your family sees the world in the same way, which is relatively rare, these topics could cause some hurt feelings,” said Brown. “Be upfront with your family members. Tell them which topics should be off limits to avoid tension and discomfort to get the most out of the time you all have together.”

The Gift of Mindfulness

It’s the day of the party. You already expressed feeling the most comfortable celebrating in a virtual setting and discussed the off-limit talking points, but then your uncle mentions that dreaded conversation topic during the Zoom call, resulting in conflict.

What do you do when a relative steps over those boundaries and creates tension?

Brown suggests allowing yourself to briefly step away from the party and engage in emotional regulation strategies.

“Mindfulness is a brilliant way to invest in your mental health,” said Brown. “Practically, it’s hard to do a mindfulness practice at a family gathering, but there are some brief practices you can do to lessen the intensity of a situation.”

One strategy is to regulate your breathing. You can walk away from the screen, or turn your camera off for a moment, and do a “four-by-four” breathing technique — inhaling to the count of four, holding your breath to the count of four, exhaling to the count of four, and repeat.

Another way is to use temperature to reduce emotional intensity, such as splashing water on your face, or “holding onto an ice cube, as silly as that sounds,” said Brown. “It takes your attention away from the thing that’s making you upset and instead directs your attention to the coldness.”

If you can’t step away from a situation, you can ease stress through progressive muscle relaxation. You can tense and relax your muscles in whatever space you’re in. “This is the sort of thing you can do while sitting on a chair, and no one would even notice,” said Brown.

Despite the stress caused from not seeing eye to eye with relatives, sometimes you have to go into a gathering with radical acceptance at the forefront of your mind. While you wish you could change your family members’ perspectives, there’s not a lot that can be done to change them.

“Radical acceptance is the willingness to embrace the people that you love, including all of their problems,” said Brown. “Your peace of mind is going to be calmer knowing that you have chosen to accept your family for who they are, flaws and all.”


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