Six top tips to navigating potential family conflicts over the holiday season

Article by Dr Lynne Green, Chief Clinical Officer at Kooth

sad looking couple on christmasThe holiday season is upon us and for many it really is ‘the most wonderful time of the year’.

Fairy lights adorn every high-street, trees are beginning to appear in the windows of homes across the country – earlier every year – and there’s a breathless anticipation of long-awaited reunions, and time to be spent, with family and friends. After all, it was only twelve months ago when the UK was thrown into chaos with last-minute government restrictions leading to the cancellation or reduction of the usual holiday season celebrations. Which is why it comes as no surprise that the festive cheer this year has become almost intoxicating – in the words of the Sainsbury’s Christmas Ad ‘it’s been a long time coming so let’s make it [2021] a Christmas to Savour’.

However, for some this ‘picture perfect’ version of the holiday season does not match their own personal reality. As mid-December approaches, the pressures of how to escape potential clashes with loved ones if they happen to see the world in a different way can lay heavy on the mind. With differing opinions – and often a generational ‘thought- divide’ – on everything from politics and social issues to conflicting family traditions and unrealistic expectations on the level of spending on gifts.

It’s great to be able to share this special time with those closest to you again this year, but occasionally there can be tension or family members going head-to-head. And then there’s the added anxiety that there may be children present who won’t understand the finer details but could be unsettled by hearing people they love disagree.

If you are anticipating some form of tension this year with family and/or friends, it could prove invaluable – and help reduce your anxiety and/or stress running up to the celebrations – to spend some time putting a plan in place for how you could navigate potential flashpoints while protecting your own mental health and those around you. The six tips below could provide a platform for your plan:

  1. Try to remember it’s not your job to change anyone’s mind. Even if you feel passionately about a topic, not everyone is going to agree with you. Accept that people approach things from different perspectives – whether it’s generational, because of their upbringing, or something else.
  2. Be aware of the context of a discussion or opinion. And while this doesn’t excuse discrimination, it can help you find common ground and address topics in ways that they’re more likely to understand.
  3. Although you might be aware of glaring differences in your opinions, you may find that you have more in common than you think. Often people’s values are similar, but the way they interpret those values is where the clashes occur. You could try to steer the conversation to these broader areas of agreement, if possible.
  4. Language is important in difficult conversations. It’s helpful not to use “you” when talking about feelings, but say “I”, instead. Rather than “you make me feel” a certain way, say “I feel” this way. This can make the other person less directly responsible for your emotions.
  5. In some situations, it might be appropriate to tackle the issue head on, if necessary. You can always ask to change the subject – say that although it’s important, it’s making you uncomfortable. Alternative, organise a safe word with a sympathetic family member. They’ll know to step in and change the topic if it’s becoming uncomfortable for you.
  6. If it’s easier, physically remove yourself from the conversation. You can then take a moment to focus on your breathing, or notice things around you, just to ground yourself and take the heat out of the situation.

And finally, it’s important to be aware that you are not the only one responsible for making this holiday season Instagram-ready! And, after all, when it comes down to it, this is a chance to see the people you care about (for all their flaws). As urgent and vital as the bigger picture is, it’s important not to lose sight of the personal relationships which are central to our happiness and wellbeing.

Lynne GreenAbout the author

Dr Lynne Green is the Chief Clinical Officer at Kooth and a Consultant Clinical Psychologist with 20 years’ NHS experience. Previous roles include Clinical Lead for CAMHS (Lancashire Care Foundation Trust) and Lead Consultant Psychologist for children’s eating disorders and adolescent inpatient services. Prior to joining Kooth, she was Clinical Director at schools based charity Place2Be.

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