How to cope with family conflict at Christmas

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… Right? Hollywood has carefully created an image of what Christmas should be like - happy families sat around an open fire, a tree littered with presents and snow as far as the eye can see. However, for many, this is not real life. We are rarely graced with snow, the pandemic has put financial burdens on so many and, really, how many of us have an open fire? Not only this, but families do not always get along, and being related to someone does not mean you will always like them. 

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So, how do you get through Christmas with your family when there is conflict?

Why are family disagreements common at Christmas?

Pressure of expectations

There is often an expectation of perfection at Christmas. Hosting Christmas Day can seem idyllic in thought, but it can be quite the opposite in practice. The pressure to make sure that the food is on time (and edible), and that everyone is having a good time can be incredibly stressful. When things don’t go to plan, this can often cause frustration and upset, adding insurmountable pressure on the day.

Tiredness

People are often tired at Christmas making them short-tempered. Late nights preparing for Christmas, travelling and potentially excited young children getting up early is not the ideal way to start the day refreshed. We all have a limit and this limit shrinks when we haven’t had enough sleep.

If you want to know more about lack of sleep/insomnia, check out my article Insomnia and how to get a better night's sleep.

History 

It is common that family members can still see us like the children we used to be, not the person we have become. Our family members know our history and they know which buttons to press, and this can often cause conflict. Old arguments and disagreements can be brought up at Christmas, and it is difficult to stay calm in these tense situations. 

Roles

When we are around the people we grew up with, it is easy to fall back into our old roles and habits. It’s not uncommon for grown-up children to let their parents do everything, even if they wouldn’t behave that way at a friend’s house. Old habits, routines, and behaviours can see siblings start to fight and parents treating their offspring as children. 

Rose-tinted memories

When you don’t see people regularly, it is easy to forget the little things they do that annoy you. It might be anything from eating with their mouths open, interrupting conversations, or leaving mugs everywhere. However, seeing them again can quickly remind you of those annoyances and make you irritated.

Changes in family dynamics

As time shifts, so do our families. Whether this is through painful break-ups, amicable separations, new partners, new babies, or loss of loved ones. These changes in family dynamics are exacerbated at Christmas. Often, children (or indeed adults) have a hard time adjusting to their parents’ new partners, and this can create a source of tension. 

Whatever the shift, Christmas time makes us acutely aware of who is missing and who is new to the fold.

Alcohol

At Christmas, it’s not unusual for people to drink more than normal or to drink for longer periods. Alcohol can reduce people’s inhibitions and affect their judgement which may lead to arguments. It can also be hard watching people lose control with alcohol, especially if you are aware that they have a complex relationship with it.

How to avoid family conflict

According to a recent survey from charity Relate, 44% of UK adults have rowed with a family member during the festive period. While we may love our family, Christmas is often filled with unspoken pressures, historical grievances, and differing political opinions. The hope is that these difficult moments blow over quickly, however, many people feel these issues deeply.

What can you do about it if you are feeling a sense of dread around spending Christmas with your family? Here are five tips to help you avoid conflict with your family.

1. Talk in advance and set clear boundaries

Before you all get together, it is important to set clear boundaries. Whether this is how long you’ll spend together, who is responsible for what, or an outlined plan for the festivities, understanding each other's expectations is vital for preventing conflict. 

If you have a difficult history with a family member, try to limit the time you spend together and surround yourself with those in your family who you trust.

If there are conversations you are worried about having or there is existing conflict, try clearing the air by talking in advance. It could be helpful to meet/open dialogue, in a more relaxed environment before Christmas, in an attempt to resolve the situation.

When trying to resolve disagreements, listen fully and allow the other person to have their say. People get frustrated when they aren’t given time to share how they feel. If they feel heard, they are better able to listen to how you feel.

Try using “I” statements to say how you feel. For example “I am upset” or “I feel really hurt when”, is less confrontational than “you are upsetting me” or “you have hurt me”. If you are unable to resolve the situation alone, it might be worth considering family therapy, which can help you work through deeper issues.

2. Get support

Having someone you can turn to if it’s all getting too much can make the visit more manageable. This could be your partner or a sibling who is there, it might be a friend you can contact by phone or an online support network. Talk to them in advance so they understand how you are feeling and let them the best way to support you.

3. Make time for yourself

It is OK to take yourself off to calm down, to recollect yourself, to have a nap, or to check in with friends or loved ones who aren’t there. If you have healthy habits that you use to keep grounded throughout the year, you don’t have to stop at Christmas. If yoga, a walk, meditation, or reading a book helps you to keep calm - remember you can still do this on Christmas Day. 

4. Suggest a family walk

Often, leaving the space where the tension is building is an effective way to stop conflict before it takes hold. The change of air and pace can often sober up family members, give children a chance to blow off some steam, and help you to avoid the family member with differing political views.

5. Cool off

It is easy to say things you later regret in the heat of the moment. Where possible, preventing an argument on Christmas Day is the preferred situation (for all involved). If you are struggling or if you feel you are about to lose your temper, try removing yourself from the situation by going to a quiet room or outside for a break. 


If you need any extra support to know how to handle conflict, process family trauma, or rebuild relationships within your family, we are here to help. At Hope Therapy, we have a vast range of therapists who can help you to cope.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Wantage OX12 & Rickmansworth WD3
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Written by Ian Stockbridge, BSc. (CBT), PGCert (Clinical Supervision), BACP (Accred)
Wantage OX12 & Rickmansworth WD3

Ian Stockbridge is the founder and lead counsellor at Hope Therapy and Counselling Services. 

As an experienced Counsellor, Ian recognised a huge societal need for therapeutic services that were often not being met. As such the 'Hope Agency'was born and its counselling team offers counselling and therapeutic support throughout the UK and abroad.

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