House of Wellness
How to avoid festive feuds this Christmas
Whether it’s tension over long-standing issues or bickering over the last prawn, arguments at Christmas can quash festive joy. Here’s how to keep the peace.
In the words of the Ramones, “Merry Christmas, I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight!”
Yet if you put family members with diverse views together tensions can boil over – and things can get particularly nasty if alcohol is involved.
Having a more harmonious family get-together isn’t out of reach, so here are some things to try ahead of your Christmas get-together.
Understand your family dynamic
Perhaps you’re the quieter family member who always gets talked over, or the eldest child who is expected to carry more of the load with the Christmas preparations.
You could be used to walking on eggshells around a temperamental parent or trying to tune out the bragging of a sibling.
“We may be in adult bodies, yet these early family dynamics stay the same,” individual and couple therapist Lissy Abrahams says.
“They may have been uncomfortable and touched a nerve in childhood, and these are still raw as adults in a similar environment.”
Lissy says being conscious of these dynamics can help you understand the patterns and be more deliberate in how you react to any triggers.
Keep your expectations realistic
While advertisements, film, TV and social media would have us believe that everyone besides our family has a harmonious Christmas, this isn’t the case.
Having unrealistic expectations – that no one will bicker or get grumpy – can set you up for disappointment.
Rather than expecting the day to be drama-free, focus on trying to reduce conflict and accept the imperfect nature of family get-togethers.
Keep in mind too that many of us are experiencing increased stress associated with the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, according to an Australian Bureau of Statistics survey from June 2021.
Avoid controversial topics
“We’re living in a time where opinions about the pandemic, lockdowns and vaccinations are rife and varied,” family counsellor Kylie Heenan says.
“This adds another layer of stress to families where differing choices are creating divides, even in long-term marriages or between parents and their adult children.”
Our lives have been shaped by the pandemic in recent years, so it’s unrealistic to expect that conversation won’t revolve around it, but says Kylie, you can set boundaries.
“See if you can agree in advance of a family gathering to set aside particular topics known to cause arguments,” she says.
And if you get drawn into a dicey conversation, be conscious about how you want to respond.
“If someone asserts their opinion and you disagree, decide if now is the time to engage – pick your battles carefully,” she says.
“Can you let this go for now? Can you change the topic? Do you need to be right?”
It’s also worth remembering you don’t all need to think the same to get along.
“Allowing space to hear each other without judgment can create a feeling of connection, even when we don’t agree,” Kylie says.
How to resolve conflict
You need to know when it’s time to try, and if everyone’s been drinking that’s not it, says Lissy.
“Be careful trying to resolve conflict when alcohol has been consumed, as it may escalate and quickly become emotionally or physically unsafe,” she says.
Even without alcohol, Kylie says moments of heightened tension are not always the best time to work on resolution.
“Deflecting from the conflict might be better,” she says.
“Ask to put the topic aside, redirect the topic in a fun, light-hearted way, or divert attention.”
Once things have cooled down, you might find it helpful to discuss what happened with that family member or one-on-one with a counsellor.