Family Holiday Tension: Getting Through Christmas Without Fighting

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Experts suggest inviting someone new to the family meal in order to diffuse tension. | Shutterstock

For those who have harmonious relationships with our families, the idea of sitting around the dinner table for a holiday meal brings up feelings of excitement and anticipation -- you know, that warm festive glow you always see in magazine ads.

But for those who have a family that favours bickering over hugging, the idea of getting together for the holidays can fill you with dread: Mom criticizes Brother, then Sister gets into it with Aunt, Dad makes a snide comment to Uncle, then Grandpa picks a fight with Sister-in-law. And you're about ready to explode, at all of them.

Family conflicts can turn what should be a happy occasion into a tense, stressful experience. And if you have children, you may be particularly concerned about exposing them to your family members' not-so-festive spirit.

Sara Dimerson, therapist and author of Am I a Normal Parent?, says that if time with your relatives is truly torturous, you may have to consider whether it's worth repeating the same experience year after year.

"You may want to share your feelings with the hostess ahead of time as a way of trying to resolve the issue," she says. "You may say, 'I know that it's traditional for us to all get together but it seems that when we do, there is stress, tension and friction. Can we try to figure out what's causing this and make some changes so that we can enjoy our time with one another?'"

For another stress diffuser, try out scent -- check out Gibson, B.C.-based natural perfumer Rohanna Goodwin Smith's recommendations to de-stress this holiday season. Story continues below.

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Dimerman says you can suggest changing things up a bit by inviting someone new into the mix (with the intention of changing the dynamic and forcing people to behave differently). Other stress-reducers include suggesting everyone pitch in with a dish, having the meal catered or perhaps forgoing the annual gift exchange.

"If the hostess refuses to acknowledge what you are feeling or doesn't want to make any changes, then perhaps think about what you need to do as a gift to yourself this year," she says. "Do you want to create a new tradition with friends or family whose company you do enjoy? Do you want to make a change by ... letting [the family] know that you will only be joining them for dessert?"

Chartered psychologist Lesley Lacny agrees speaking to family members before your holiday event can be an effective way to head off conflict. State your intention to put the children first and set your differences aside, even for one night. Then, set yourself up for success.

"Take some time to reflect on what is within your control," says Lacny. "You can't control how others will respond but you can be intentional about your own responses. [Pay] attention to what is happening in the moment as it happens.... versus being set on 'auto-pilot' and reacting."

During the meal, says Lacny, keep yourself in check by staying aware of how you are feeling and responding to others.

"If you feel your buttons getting pushed and it's getting too hard to stay calm, take a bathroom break," says Lacny. "Remind yourself of your intentions and give your body some deep breaths which help to regulate and slow down the 'fight or flight' response."

If you're concerned you'll fly off the handle, it's a good idea to recruit a family member or friend to help you stay calm, says Lacny. And avoid hot topics that you know are likely to get people fired up.

"For example, the uneven distribution of your late Great Aunt's inheritance does not make for good conversation," she says. "If tensions rise, be prepared with 'diversion topics' that can get people focused in another direction."

If you're hosting the party, be intentional about where people sit, suggests Lacny. Create distance between likely sparring partners. And take it easy on the alcohol.

"Alcohol lowers our inhibitions and takes us in the opposite direction of awareness and mindfulness," she says. "Limit the amount of alcohol in the house or on the table if you know it will cause problems."

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