by UB’s Joyce Marter, LCPC
Every family has its issues, and we are all shaped and molded into who we are (to varying degrees) by our families of origin. Old family roles and dynamics can get triggered during the holidays and buried issues can resurface. We all tend to regress to a less mature state around our families, and assume old communication and relationship patterns. For example, your older sister starts bossing everyone around and your younger brother doesn’t lift a finger but is praised by your parents.
People are stressed due to travel and finances issues, especially in this economy. High expectations to be close and have a good time can cause pressure and tension. Perhaps there is an unresolved issue in the family, or the family is adjusting to a life transition like a marriage, death or divorce. Sometimes if you haven’t seen people in a while there is pressure to report what you have accomplished or sometimes you need to face people and explain a hard situation like a job loss or a break up.
Families are systems and we are each a part of the machine—if one member is not in a good place, the whole family dynamic can be thrown off.
Conflict may occur between siblings, between partners, between parents, between a parent and a grown child. The more important the relationship and more important this issue, the greater the scale of the conflict. For example, fighting with mom about your choice not to have children is going to be more loaded than arguing with Aunt Sue about sweet potato versus pumpkin pie. Families may have common issues like communication problems, poor boundaries, role definitions, or dynamics like triangulation. Some families may have more serious problems such as alcoholism, addiction, trauma or abuse.
The Truth About Conflict:
- It is a normal and necessary part of the human condition.
- Conflict is necessary for progress and change.
- It is an opportunity for honesty and intimacy in relationships.
What complicates conflict?
- Poor communication
- Different values and opinions
- Confusion about role expectations
- Unresolved prior conflict
How does conflict affect you?
- Stress (impacts sleep, appetite)
- Anxiety (nervousness, worry)
- Anger (irritation, annoyance)
- Fear (dealing with uncertainty and the future)
- Sadness (feelings of powerlessness, loss, depression)
- Hopelessness (concern that things are stuck and will not change)
- Physical complaints (headaches, digestive problems)
There is a difference between conflict and abuse. Abuse is a pattern of behaviors in a relationship that are used to gain and/or maintain power and control over another. If you are dealing with abuse in your family, you may wish to seek professional assistance, and to set firm boundaries – which can include not seeing the family members who are abusive as a way of taking care of yourself as well as your emotional and physical health.
If you are dealing with common family issues and stressors, here are some tips:
Take care of yourself. Reduce your stress. Get enough rest and hydration. Get exercise. Even do some breathing exercises, meditate or yoga. Get yourself calm and grounded. If your feathers get ruffled at a family gathering, give yourself a time out—take 10 minutes to walk around the block or get some mental space.
Access your support network—if your favorite cousin will be there, get support and camaraderie from her—or from your partner. Don’t drink too much during the festivities as alcohol can fuel emotions and impair judgment. Taking care of yourself may even mean declining to get together with the family, if that is going to be too stressful or difficult for you at this point in time. It’s okay to say no if you are taking care of yourself—try to let go of the guilt.
Go in with realistic expectations. If your dad always criticizes your career, don’t go in to the visit expecting something different. Plan how you would like to respond. Think through your intentions for the holidays (seeing family, being grateful, catching up) and visualize things going reasonably well and yourself feeling relaxed, confident and comfortable. By visualizing you increase the likelihood that this is the way things will play out, just like in sports psychology. Don’t bite off more than you can chew—planning to hit your parents in the morning, your neighbors in the afternoon and your in-laws in the evening may be a recipe for disaster. Learn to say no to some things and make a manageable plan for yourself.
Control what you can and let go of the rest. You can control your expectations, your behavior, your attitude and communication, as well as when you arrive and how long you stay. You can’t control factors outside yourself (for example, what your mother says or how much your Uncle Joe drinks) and it is important to let those go.
If loaded issues come up, be mindful of your communication. Be empathic—let people know you understand the feelings they are having – “I understand you are upset and that this is very hard for you.” Empathy is validating, can diffuse feelings, and it can stop people from feeling like they have to up the ante in order to be heard. Have a good attitude: be kind, caring and respectful even if others aren’t. Dig deep and be the bigger person. Be mindful of your own defensiveness—pause before responding and reacting. Use assertive communication that is direct, clear and appropriate. Do not be aggressive (like swearing or raising your voice) or passive aggressive (like eye rolling, slamming doors or giving the silent treatment.) Be respectful to your family as you would your colleagues or close friends—often times we don’t put forth the same effort to be kind to our family as we do with other people in our lives.
Speak in “I” statements, rather than in “you” statements. For example, say I need some space, rather than you are very intrusive and controlling. I statements make people less defensive. Avoid triangulation or gossiping—communicate directly to people in an honest and respectful manner. Set clear boundaries—today is a family celebration and is not the time or place for this. Say I would be happy to set aside some time for us to talk about this, as I see it is important to you. Redirect the focus on a neutral topic—the parade, the game, focus on the kids, pull out a board game or some cards as a focused activity that will facilitate some togetherness and divert from the conflict.
Use humor to diffuse tension. Practice detachment, which is basically emotionally unplugging from a situation. You are still there and you care, but you are not going to get tanked with the emotional negativity of the situation. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to all your expectations. Be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they’re feeling the effects of holiday stress too. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself—if the family gathering is causing you an inordinate amount of stress, give yourself permission to gracefully excuse yourself or at least go lie down for 15 minutes or call a friend for moral support.
Before saying something, ask yourself, is this the time or place to bring this up? Holiday gatherings are not the appropriate time and place to work out your issues with your mother’s controlling nature or intrusiveness. It is a time to try to be grateful for what we have and let go of the rest.
If others are arguing, you can choose to stay out of it (if that is what is best for you) or you can choose to mediate by empathizing that both parties are upset, setting a boundary that they need to discuss this at a different time, and redirecting the focus. Sometimes it’s best to nip these arguments in the bud before they escalate into a full scale drama. Use humor to lighten the mood and give perspective.
Think positively—be aware of your self talk, or the voice in your head. Are you fueling your stress and negative feelings with dark thoughts? Try to cut yourself some slack and look at the good parts of things. Have a mantra like, “and this too shall pass.”
Practice Gratitude. Be thankful for what you have and who you have in your life. Gratitude encourages us to look at the good parts in life rather than to dwell on the dysfunction that we all have in our families to varying degrees at different points in life.
For after the holidays:
Plan some debriefing time with your friends or partner after the holiday. Schedule in some relaxation and self care. If the family conflict causes you significant distress, consider scheduling an appointment with a therapist. Our biggest referral day of the year is 12/27, which seems to directly correlate with the holidays, and people feeling stressed and reaching out for help.