Communication Currents

Avoiding Family Stress and Conflict during the Holidays

December 1, 2010
Interpersonal Communication

The holiday season can be a time of joy and togetherness or it can be a time of stress, conflict and family tension. Communication scholars have dedicated years of research to understanding difficult and stressful family interactions. This body of research can lead us to form recommendations on how families might better cope with the potential stress and conflict associated with the holiday season. It’s important to realize that when families gather, members may not get along, causing tension and awkward interactions. One option is to avoid holiday gatherings altogether.  However, this too can create conflict in the family.  If one chooses to attend potentially difficult holiday gatherings and deal with the resulting stress and conflict, here are some ways communication scholars suggest to improve your coping strategies and successfully navigate the family holiday season.

De-emphasize the materialistic aspect of the season. Research has demonstrated that holiday gatherings and family celebrations are more satisfying and result in higher levels of happiness when family members de-emphasize the materialistic aspect of the celebration while emphasizing the positive aspects of family and spirituality, and engage in “environmentally conscious consumption practices” during holiday gatherings.

Be sensitive to needs for private space. Having visitors and a full house during the holiday season is common. This means that people who typically do not live together are now under one roof.  This can be particularly stressful for adolescents in the family. Communication scholars have found that privacy invasions of family adolescents are likely to provoke conflict. It is therefore important for family members to be aware of and sensitive to adolescents’ need for privacy and space. Recognizing this ahead of time and discussing this with visitors can help avoid triggering events that can lead to uncomfortable conflicts between an adolescent and other family members. One of the last things that families need during the holidays is an explosion from an adolescent family member.

Set differences aside for the holidays. During the holidays, it is common for families with children to visit with grandparents and older family members.  This combination often leads to conflict between the younger and the older adults.  Problematic communication typically results when there is a disagreement or rebuff between young and old family members.  Problems may develop over a variety of issues such as habits, personality, worldviews, and political beliefs. Old-to-young criticism is a common cause of family conflict.  Adolescents may experience their older family members as critical, interfering, demanding, and meddlesome. Discussing these potentially difficult situations with all the family members involved may help sensitize--and desensitize--them so they can attempt to put their differences aside during the holiday season.

Use productive conflict management strategies. Research has consistently demonstrated that productive conflict management such as having a positive attitude, engaging in successful problem solving, and providing face-saving opportunities are associated with higher relationship satisfaction and more positive outcomes. Behaviors such as conflict avoidance, blaming others, and behaving in a controlling manner during a conflict episode guarantee a negative outcome for the conflict. Recognizing and implementing the most positive, productive conflict management strategies during the holiday season can help reduce the stress and the potential for family conflict. 

Avoid repeating bad patterns. Researchers have also found that conflict styles used in the family of origin carry over to the romantic relationships of the offspring in the family. It is easy for us to watch and critique our parents’ conflict style, but we need to remember that we might be replicating their patterns. Repeating destructive conflict patterns can add fuel to the fire during a family gathering.

Try out new positive patterns of interaction. Families do not like change and as a consequence, tend to engage inritualized and repeated patterns of interaction. In other words, when families that live apart get together for the holidays, old patterns and tensions are likely to re-emerge, triggering old wounds and memories of unresolved conflicts. Instead of automatically repeating the way in which we engage in conflict with our family (which is what they are expecting), communication scholars suggest we try out new positive behaviors that may have the potential to de-escalate a conflict. 

Create new family rituals. Holidays can be particularly stressful for blended families. While these times can trigger memories of previous family holidays and a sense of loss, they can also provide a time for blended families to create new rituals and increase the “feeling like a family” sentiment. Communication researchers have found that holidays and celebrations provide opportunities for the creation of new family rituals. So, while blended families may feel stressed during the holiday season due to competing family obligations and old memories, there is also a great potential for moving the blended family forward, creating a stronger family unit. Creating new family rituals and memories can help eliminate the pain associated with the lost family experience.

Acknowledge your own needs and limitations. The Mayo Clinic provides a number of useful recommendations for surviving the stressful and potentially conflictual holiday season. They suggest that during these peak stressful times, it’s important to acknowledge your own feelings, especially if someone close to the family has recently died or cannot be with you. Realize that it’s normal to feel sadness and grief. Reach out to others for help, especially if you are feeling overwhelmed, sad, or lost. It is not necessary to be sad and stressed in silence. Rather, it’s natural for people to want to help each other. Recognize the need to set limits on holiday spending. Financial stress can also cause conflict during the holidays.  Keep presents simple, focusing on the act of giving, not the cost of the gift. Don’t try to be all things for all people. Keep a realistic schedule during the holidays and be sure to save some time and energy for yourself. These alone times can replenish you and provide resiliency for coping with the stressful situations you are bound to encounter.            

Finally, remember that while your family has given you your greatest joy, it can also be the source of your deepest pain. This profound statement reminds us of the vulnerabilities as well as the triumphs that we experience in our families.  Knowing your limitations and setting healthy boundaries can help ensure a successful, happy holiday season for you and for your family.