Thanksgiving is a time of joy, celebration, and eating massive amounts of food while the buttons on our pants strain for dear life. It’s when families come together to create lasting memories and reminisce about past feasts, succulent turkey, and football games won and lost. However, this time of year can also be challenging for many, as it brings the dynamics and tensions within family units to the forefront. 

As the big day approaches, stress levels increase, which can have a domino effect. Someone may have a bad day and snap at you in the store. This makes you mad, and you arrive home feeling vexed and annoyed and, in turn, take it out on your partner. Anger and stress are unwanted gifts that keep giving, which tends to be exacerbated this time of year.

As a family therapist, I’ve witnessed firsthand the struggles that people face when dealing with problematic family members during the holidays. I want to offer some guidance and advice to help you through the holiday season.

The Reality Behind Holiday and Family Conflicts:

The holiday season creates the perfect environment to re-ignite deep-seated family dynamics, stirring up emotions we thought were long forgotten. For instance, adult children returning home may revert to their old roles, leading to power struggles and disagreements. Past grievances can resurface, rekindling old conflicts while spending extended periods in close quarters with family. This can lead to cabin fever, sibling rivalries, or other interpersonal issues that magnify underlying tensions.

Awkward Conversations:

The holiday season brings out both the best and worst in people. Someone will inevitably bring up a topic of conversation that rubs another the wrong way; it wouldn’t be the holiday season without it. 

I know a couple who are asked every Thanksgiving, ‘So, when will you start a family?” They have no intention of having children, and they explain this every year, but people continue to ask and always feel uncomfortable.

So, how do you react to questions or topics such as this, especially when sensitive matters such as politics, religion, or personal life choices arise? Here are some strategies to help you navigate these conversations:

  • Redirect the Conversation: When a touchy subject arises, gently shift the conversation towards a safer, neutral topic. For example, if politics come up, you might say, “Speaking of politics, did you catch the latest ball game or binge-watch anything recently?” Try to lighten the atmosphere without being dismissive.
  • Active Listening: When someone expresses their opinion, actively listen without immediately responding or placing judgment. This can help defuse tension and encourage open dialogue. 
  • Practice Empathy: When engaged in a conversation you may disagree with, try using empathy to understand the topic from the other person’s perspective. Put yourself in their shoes and look at how and why they may have their opinion. We sometimes argue before the other person can finish their thought and miss a crucial point that changes everything. Remember, it is OK not to agree with everyone; we all have the right to our opinions.
  • Set Boundaries: Communicate your boundaries politely but firmly. If someone persists in discussing a topic that makes you uncomfortable, say something like, “I’d prefer not to discuss this right now. Let’s focus on enjoying our time together.”

Toxic Family Members:

Dealing with a toxic family member adds yet another layer of complexity to our holiday season. I know several patients who dread this time of year; their stress levels rise because they know they have to deal with that one person in the family who seems to go out of their way to make their day miserable. Here are some strategies to manage such situations:

  • Choose Your Battles: Not every issue needs to be confronted during the holidays. Assess the importance of the problem and decide whether it’s worth addressing. Conversations can be shelved and picked up at a more appropriate time. There may be topics that you will always have differing views on. It is OK to agree to disagree and say as such in a kind yet firm manner, for example: “I don’t think we are going to see eye to eye on this topic; let’s drop this and chat about something else.”
  • Limit Interaction: Spend time with toxic family members in small doses, and make sure you have a support system in place to help you cope with any negativity. Chat with your support people ahead of time; you can even have a code word or subtle gesture you can give them so they can step in and help distract from the conversation. Be sure to ask them if they feel comfortable doing this so they don’t have to choose sides.
  • Be Kind to You: Prioritize self-care during the holiday season. Engage in activities that help you relax and recharge, such as walking, exercising, or just taking time away from the family to read a chapter of your book, walk your dog, unwind, and lower your stress levels. 
  • Keep a positive outlook and embrace your inner smile: When things begin to go south and tensions rise, keeping a smile on our faces and our thoughts in a positive place can be challenging. However, remember that this time of year is fleeting; things will return to normal, and there is the opportunity to create some fantastic memories. When your stress levels build, think of something you are looking forward to or focus on the positives of the holiday. You may be thrilled to see your Dad after many months of separation, or your sister may have done something ridiculous that you can both laugh about for years to come. It is the small things that keep us going.

Remember that every family has its quirks, and while conflicts may arise, they don’t define the entire holiday experience. Focus on the love and shared moments that make the holiday season special, and remember, if things get stressful, there is always pumpkin pie!

To learn more about effective communication and keeping a positive outlook during stressful times, download our mini-course, “Rise above the chaos and embrace your inner smile.”

In this mini-course, we emphasize the importance of centering your mind and body, creating a state of mental and physical calm. We teach you the value of being mindful of your emotions and the importance of acting objectively rather than subjectively. Additionally, we explore concepts such as “dropping the bone,” mastering the art of taking the high road in an argument, and how to deflect sarcasm. While these skills are crucial to every relationship, they are often overlooked. Here, we guide you and help you develop these essential skills so that you can rely on them when stress and conflict inevitably arise.

Our entire course is also available on our website, as well as books, our blog, and other classes., follow the link and start your journey to a harmonious relationship.