Easing family conflicts during the holidays

By: Mila Kadelkova

Author: Canadian Living


Easing family conflicts during the holidays

By: Mila Kadelkova
The holidays are a time for uniting family and friends while celebrating new and old traditions. They’re the perfect opportunity to bond with extended relatives and squeeze in time with those who you seldomly see. But dysfunction rears its ugly head in every family, especially in times of high stress.

From squabbling siblings to critical in-laws and parents who expect perfection, it's nearly impossible to avoid family conflict. We spoke with Marsha Berniker, a Toronto-based couples psychotherapist, about practical solutions to some of the most common family conflicts that arise over the holidays.

Surviving the in-laws

Let's face it, as much as you love your in-laws, it's human nature to experience incompatibility now and then. This commonly becomes exaggerated during stressful times like the holidays. Whether it's an overly critical mother-in-law or a jealous sibling, something is likely to rub you or your partner the wrong way during the lengthy holiday gatherings.

Berniker suggests identifying the triggers and coming up with an action plan as a couple: "If what triggers you is your mother-in-law coming over and criticizing your home, then organize a dinner outside the house for a shorter period of time." The key, Berniker says, is to "be honest with your spouse about what the problem is and what you can do as a couple to prevent it." Anticipating the problems and having an action plan will make for a much smoother and less stressful celebration.

Conflicting family traditions
This often occurs with newlyweds who are suddenly faced with uniting two different religions. If your spouse's family celebrates Hanukkah and yours celebrates Christmas, why not enjoy both? "A couple must accept each other's differences," says Berniker. She recommends taking part in both celebrations while being respectful not only to your own beliefs, but also to your new family's beliefs.

"In any celebration, whether or not you agree with it, there is warmth, sharing and love. One doesn't have to agree with or believe in something to join in and enjoy its traditions," says Berniker.

Page 1 of 3 – Discover how to avoid stressing out when meeting your partner's family on page 2.
Economic stress
You have 15 cousins, two step-parents and an immediate family of 10. And that's not counting your partner's side of the family. You're attending five separate gift exchanges and you know everyone's expecting a little something from you. "The added stress of finances during the holidays is entirely self-imposed," explains Berniker.

People are not obligated to spend money, they choose to. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and arguing with your spouse over which family members should receive gifts, get creative. "Give homemade jam or brownies to your relatives instead of running yourself broke," suggests Berniker. Not only will they be understanding given your financial situation, but they'll appreciate the thought and effort.

Meeting your new partner's family for the first time

There's nothing more stressful than meeting your significant other's entire family over an intimate holiday dinner. As if holiday family gatherings weren't overwhelming enough, now there's the added stress of making a good impression. To relieve some of the anxiety associated with first-time meetings, Berniker suggests shorter visits: "A situation can go very differently if you're spending only one hour with someone as opposed to four hours."

Berniker also emphasizes self-awareness: "Self-insecurities will resonate when you meet strangers for the first time. If you feel you're not good enough, that's what will come through to your new partner's family." Self-confidence (and punctuality!) will go a long way in impressing your new honey's family.

Critical parents and relatives

You're hosting your first family dinner and you know your overly critical relatives will find something wrong with the dinner you've laboured to put together. Some key advice from Berniker is to remember that just because your parents and siblings are perfectionists doesn't mean you have to be.

"Refocus your energy into taking care of yourself and your partner," she says. Moreover, expect that snide remarks will be made and, together with your significant other, prepare answers that will diffuse the situation. Berniker further suggests "to not make everything from scratch and to avoid inviting your entire extended family."

Page 2 of 3 – Find out why your kids tend to act out more during the holidays on page 3.
Kids acting out
If children are part of the equation, managing their behaviour amidst holiday stress can amplify the anxiety you're already experiencing. Kids can be a nuisance, overly hyper or angry and hurt, especially in cases of extended or blended families.

Berniker explains that children's reactions during times of high stress are only an extension of what's happening year-round. "The stress exists and kids act out because the root cause has never been dealt with. Whatever becomes exaggerated during the holidays is an underlying problem that should be addressed prior to the holidays," she says. In other words, instead of anticipating bad behaviour, deal with it before it surfaces.

"Sit down with your kids and determine why they act out," Berniker recommends. This allows you to diffuse the situation before it's had a chance to affect what should be a happy, celebratory time during the holidays.

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Easing family conflicts during the holidays