The little things can cause big family fights at Christmas; these tips for de-escalating holiday conflicts may not end all your family fights, but they can help make Christmas more enjoyable.
My favorite tip for family fights at any time of the year is to accept your relatives for who they are. Uncle Homer belches and sits in front of the television the whole time, Grandpa Simpson yells and drinks too much Scotch, and Little Bart feeds the dog icicles – from the Christmas tree, not outside!
The holidays can be full of conflict, but you can shake off the irritations and have a Merry Christmas anyway…
Find your funny bone
An easy way to de-escalate a family fight is to escape! Jump into a different world – the winter wonderland. Go sledding or tobogganing, snow shoeing, or walking in a snowy park with the family members you most enjoy spending time with.
Then, escape into funny movies. Despicable Me is hilarious, and perfect for all ages.
Ignoring family fights at Christmas isn’t the most emotionally healthy way to cope with conflict, but since when is Christmas the best time to solve family problems? Take a break this year — go check out the funny movies on Amazon!
And, here are some popular Christmas DVDs to lighten your spirits.
Put yourself in your family members’ shoes
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey encourages us to seek first to understand, then to be understood. I know how hard this is when you have family problems or toxic relatives; my father left when I was three years old, and never called or wrote. I’ve forgiven him – and it helped me to put myself in his shoes and see his actions from his perspective (which he explained to me after I caught up with him, as an adult). When I see his behavior through his eyes, I see him as a human being, a man who made mistakes and did the best he could.
To de-escalate a family fight at Christmas, take a deep breath and try to see things from your family member’s perspective. Even if you don’t understand why they do what they do, know they have reasons that make sense to them.
Know when to draw the line – healthy boundaries
On my How to Cope With Difficult Parents article, many readers describe toxic relatives who cause a lot of harm to themselves and their family members. My readers ask the same question over and over: “How can I stop my brother/parent/uncle/family member from doing it again?”
The short answer is: you can’t. You can’t stop anyone from doing anything – you can’t control or change anyone’s behavior.
The long answer is depends on the family conflict. Sometimes you can draw a healthy boundary after you figure out how you feel about something (such as Aunt Marge constantly nagging you about your weight), and telling her firmly but gently that you’d like to change the subject.
There are whole books written on setting healthy boundaries, such as Boundaries: When to Say YES, When to Say NO, To Take Control of Your Life.
Don’t expect your family members to change
There’s no point trying to get your relatives to see your perspective – especially if you’ve been having the same fights every Christmas! They are who they are. You are who you are. Neither of you is likely to make huge changes in your personality or life. Sometimes the root of chronic family problems is the wish that things were different.
Instead of yearning for what isn’t, focus on accepting and dealing with your relatives the way are they right now. Sometimes the best way to prevent family fights at Christmas is to just accept people for who they are.
Focus on what you can control
You can control your thoughts, your words, and the amount of time you spend with your family. Change the things you have control over, such as long you spend talking to a certain relative. Even knowing you have control over the littlest things can make a difference! Your family fights may never change, but you can empower yourself in different ways.
For instance, if you have an alcoholic sibling, you can join an Al-Anon support group or call a hotline if things are particularly bad. Family fights are stressful at Christmas – there’s no doubt about it – but you can reduce the stress by focusing on your own attitude and actions.
Figure out what you expect from your family at Christmas
Before the big family Christmas get together, make a list of your expectations. Dig deep: write down five or ten expectations you have of your family, Christmas Day, and yourself. What do you want to happen? What don’t you want to happen?
For instance, I want to have meaningful, real conversations with my family members about our lives, goals, dreams, and disappointments. I want to know them better, to really connect with them (it rarely happens). And I want them to be less negative, and more optimistic and accepting. To de-escalate family fights at Christmas and deal with my own stress, I need to realize that my expectations are setting me up for disappointment.
Let go of unrealistic expectations
Some of your expectations are probably reasonable, and some probably aren’t. For instance, it’s reasonable for me to expect to have a deep, meaningful conversation with at least one family member at Christmas! But it’s not realistic for me to expect them all to suddenly become optimistic, bubbling-over-with-joy peeps. Maybe you expect your family not to fight at Christmas…and maybe every year they do. Maybe you expect civility, not abuse.
Whatever your expectations, look at them as objectively as possible. Are you being realistic? Instead of holding on to unrealistic expectations, set new expectations that are based in reality. Sometimes dealing with stress at Christmas is about tweaking your own attitude.
Don’t stop here! Read How to Handle Relatives Who Get Drunk at Family Gatherings.
Need encouragement? Sign up for my weekly "Echoes of Joy" email - it's free, short, and energizing. Like me! Is your relationship in trouble? Get 7 Steps to Fixing Your Marriage from relationship coach Mort Fertel. It's free and helpful, no strings attached.