Common fights families have at the holidays can be hard to diffuse, even when you're all at the same...
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Experts Explain How To Diffuse The 7 Most Common Fights Families Have At The Holidays

What should you do when stress is high and expectations are higher?

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Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays... or at least that’s how the song goes. In reality, family gatherings at holidays usually involve high stress levels and even higher expectations. The most common fights families have at the holidays typically start over something that’s seemingly simple, like whether or not to exchange gifts or who’s bringing the yams, but they’re sometimes anything but simple to diffuse.

As much as I would love to just sweep my own family’s disagreements under the rug for the sake of a holiday event, not everyone agrees. Why can’t everyone just pass the mashed potatoes and get over it already, right? Avoiding family fights at the holidays may sound like an insurmountable task, but thankfully, experts have advice for how to dial down the drama when it comes to common disagreements.

In my experience, families usually fall into one of two camps when there’s a disagreement: Argue and get over it or hold a grudge and fight until the end of all time. (OK. Maybe not that drastic, but until someone slams a door or refuses to attend Thanksgiving dinner.) The perfect storm of personalities though can definitely lend itself to a mixture of these scenarios, especially when you marry into a family who does it differently. The holiday season just amplifies it all — unless you learn how to navigate these situations in a healthy way.

If you, like Clark W. Griswold himself, want to have the “hap-hap-happiest” holiday season, read on to learn how to diffuse common family fights and actually enjoy yourself at a family gathering for once and for all.


What The Schedule Looks Like

Where are you gathering? What are you eating? What time? Who’s cooking what? So. Many. Questions. The answers to which often start disagreements right in your own home.

“To get through disagreements such as deciding whose family to spend a holiday with, you first need to communicate,” neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez tells Romper. “Tell your partner your wants, needs, and feelings, without blaming or criticizing your partner. Then, allow your partner to express their wants, needs, and feelings. Next, you each can identify and express what you can be flexible about and what you can not be flexible about. Once you are able to see each other’s viewpoint, you can more easily reach a compromise.”

When it comes to making scheduling decisions, family physician Dr. Marie-Elizabeth Ramas agrees that perspective and flexibility are key. “Many traditions are practiced without thinking about why they are done in that way. For instance, does Christmas need to be celebrated on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? Does the family always have to celebrate Ramadan at the in-laws’ home? For this reason, it is important to find a win-win alternative when possible. This could be an opportunity to discuss what your new goals and priorities are as a family.”


Past Issues Are Brought Up (Again)

Remember that time Uncle Joe didn’t attend Aunt Ellen’s 60th birthday? What about when your sister dated that guy who dumped you senior year of high school? Holiday gatherings can create the perfect breeding grounds for old wounds to re-open and fester, but it is possible to diffuse this tricky situation with the right script.

“It's important to set good intentions prior to engaging in family holidays. As with any conflict, it’s important to acknowledge the person's concern by saying something like, ‘it seems that this topic is still bothering you.’ You also should set your boundaries in a calm manner by saying something like, ‘I am not in a place to discuss this right now’ or ‘Today, I am looking forward to sharing positive experiences with the family. I do not want to engage in conflict,’” Ramas tells Romper.

“You can also suggest a time when you are available to speak about the person's concerns by saying, ‘Your concern is important to me. How about we talk about this on [you suggest a time/date].’ Remember that other people's emergencies do not have to be your own,” Ramas explains. “Remain calm, and if needed, remove yourself from a situation where the other person is not respecting your boundaries or requests.”


How Kids Should Behave

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It can sometimes feel like certain extended family members are just ready and waiting to pass judgement on your parenting style. When Aunt Wanda gives you the side-eye and exclaims that she never let her little Timmy eat that much pie, it’s important to have a plan for how you’ll react.

“If a family member tries to discipline your child in a way you don’t agree with, pull that family member to the side and have a private conversation with them. Tell them that if you are present, they — your family member —should talk to you first about how they think your child needs to be disciplined,” Hafeez says.

“I would also have a conversation with your family members about how you want your child disciplined. You can explain your values and specific parenting style to your family members because sometimes, it does take a village to raise a child, and sometimes you might not always be present. Therefore, you need to clarify with family and friends what is OK and what is not OK when it comes to your child.”


Spending Limits & Gift-Giving

Money is another tricky topic within families that’s amplified during gift-giving holidays. When your brother just lost his job or money is tight in your own household, you might feel the urge to put a kibosh on this year’s gift exchange. But what happens when not everyone agrees to forgo gifts or stick to a strict spending limit?

“The idea of gifts and how much to spend can be difficult to address, especially during the holiday season. In some families, gift-giving is their way to express love. Since many topics around money can strike a sensitive chord, I recommend having these discussions well before the holiday rush,” Ramas tells Romper. “Deciding on a maximum spending amount for gifts is a good first step. Another alternative could be to center on creating a family experience (destination, lessons, community service) or using the money that would be spent on gifts to donate to a charity. In the end, holidays are about sharing love and demonstrating gratitude, especially after such a tough year we have all had. Get creative!”


Who Does What

During the holidays the division of responsibilities surrounding tasks like cooking, preparing the house for company, and buying gifts can fall disproportionately on one person or another. (Let’s be real though, it’s moms who makes the holiday magic.) This can be true between spouses and throughout an extended family.

“To limit disagreements about who does what during the holidays, talk to your loved ones about their favorite part of the holidays. For example, if your grandmother loves to cook for the family, assign the cooking role to her,” Hafeez tells Romper.

Equally as important is to let your own needs and boundaries be known. “For example, if you are a working mother, you may not have time to cook an entire meal for your family,” Hafeez says. “Communicate and say something along the lines of ‘Cooking for the entire family doesn’t work so well for me and my schedule. Could someone else cook dinner this year?’ Try to be flexible and resilient, as traditions and peoples’ needs and expectations are always changing.”


Unmet Expectations & Changing Traditions

Family traditions are an integral part of the holiday season, but the high expectations they bring can definitely spark squabbles when things change. Adapting to this change can be especially hard if you’re not prepared for it.

“Instead of focusing on the changed tradition, try and focus on the important part, which is spending time together. The underlying purpose of having a tradition is to create memories with your family, which will last forever,” Hafeez says. “At a holiday gathering, you can walk down memory lane and talk about your special tradition to deal with the emotional challenge of a changed tradition. Also, keep in mind that it’s OK to be sad when traditions change. To move forward, focus on being grateful for what you have and allow yourself time to grieve. You can also try and adapt the tradition to something that works for you and your family.”


Feelings Of Grief & Loss That Don’t Match Your Family’s Festive Mood

“Holidays carry a lot of different emotions. For some, these are happy times. For others, holidays can bring unexpected sorrows,” Ramas tells Romper. “Especially over the last two years, the U.S. has lost over 650,000 lives, and this hurts. Allowing time and space to grieve, no matter how big or small of a change, is important. Some tools that I encourage my patients to use as they are processing are journaling daily gratitudes, regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and sharing your thoughts with someone that you trust. While these tools may not help everything, they can provide useful perspective and refocusing on the important memories and experiences to come!”

Even with planning done and boundaries in place, it can be helpful to talk to a professional if and when family stress reaches a fever pitch. “The holiday season can bring a lot of stress and pressure,” Ramas says. “I encourage anyone that feels this way to reach out to their family physician to help talk through and manage their feelings.”


Dr. Sanam Hafeez, neuropsychologist in NYC, director of Comprehend the Mind

Dr. Marie-Elizabeth Ramas, MD, family physician in Nashua, NH

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