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How to survive your family during the holidays

Getting along with relatives can be easier with some simple do’s and don’ts
Getting along with relatives during the holidays means being able to find common ground. Adult siblings still may not agree on most topics, but they may agree on what is the greatest Christmas movie of all time. (Associated Press file)

Every year, millions of Americans gather with family to celebrate the holidays. Gifts are exchanged. Eggnog is consumed. Carolers sing on doorsteps. Ugly Christmas sweaters are worn and frosty snowmen are constructed.

On many occasions, however, family members forced together in close proximity can lead to disputes over something as simple as where the thermostat should be set. Suddenly, the family holiday gathering goes from looking like a Hallmark commercial to a scene from an episode of Cops.

In order to avoid having a holiday get-together with family turn into a disaster, licensed therapists and psychiatrists discuss how conflict can be avoided and mental health can be preserved through some basic adjustments to mindsets and attitudes.

One way in which everyone can experience a pleasant December is to lower expectations. Not everyone’s Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Festivus is going to look like the ending of “It’s a Wonderful Life” or that long-running Folgers commercial in which Billy comes home – and there is nothing wrong with that. Most holidays are filled with average activities, average conversation and sometimes the occasional argument.

“Expectations can be a disappointment or a resentment waiting to happen,” licensed clinical social worker Mark Bigley said on choosingtherapy.com. “Expectations can be a self-made trap for our own reactivity.”

Getting along with relatives also means being able to find common ground. Grown siblings still may not agree on most topics, but they may agree on what is the greatest Christmas movie of all time, whether that be “Christmas Vacation” or “Die Hard.”

“It’s important to focus on what matters the most vs trivial matters,” licensed independent clinical social worker Keisha Williams said on choosingtherapy.com. “Seek to find common ground with difficult family members. Be slow to speak, but quick to listen. Furthermore, give off what you desire to receive in return and just maybe your efforts will be met in kind.”

Finding common ground also means avoiding discussions that will inevitably lead to an argument. One topic guaranteed to lead to a fight among family members is the dreaded “P” word: Politics.

“Discussing political views with family members will almost always ruin a holiday,” said Dr. Diane Dreher, a licensed counselor in an interview with care.com. “These days, with so much political polarization, political arguments can destroy any holiday cheer.”

“Controversial topics, like politics, religion, and social issues only lead to arguments and bad feelings,” Dr. Steven Rosenberg, a licenses hypnotherapist, said on choosingtherapy.com.

Rosenberg advises family members to switch topics instead.

“Talk about work, school, sports, movies, books, food or even the weather,” he said. “If the subject strays to a controversial topic, say something noncommittal like ‘Really?’ or ‘That’s interesting,’ then excuse yourself to go to another room or help the host.”

Excusing oneself every once in a while from more tense or uncomfortable situations and conversations with relatives is also encouraged. Psychologists and licensed therapists often bring up the term “hypercopresense,” when referring to common behaviors and conflicts that arise when family members are forced together under one roof, especially during the holidays.

“It’s like a large dose of family, all at once,” professor Melanie Booth-Butterfield, a communications expert at the University of West Virginia, told the BBC. “Hypercopresence can result in conflicts with relatives, angry words that cannot be taken back and cold, rude nonverbal behaviors which leave lasting impressions.”

Removing oneself from a hypercopresence situation before such conflict arises is often the best solution to keeping the peace and mitigating stress for everyone involved.

“Have a plan to respond to distressing situations,” licensed counselor James Cochran said on choosingtherapy.com. “Maybe have a ‘code word’ that sends the signal that you’re feeling overwhelmed and need a quick way out of the situation. If you’re walking into an environment that you know is going to be stressful, think ahead about an exit strategy.”

Being mindful of how much time is being spent with Captain Morgan or Jose Quervo during the holidays can also mitigate tensions among family members and prevent unnecessary conflict and infighting.

“Minimize your alcohol intake,” psychiatrist Dr. Lindsay Israel said on choosingtherapy.com. “This will allow you to maintain better control of your stress-tolerance and decision-making. If you keep your own emotional levels in check, then you will have a better chance of tolerating the ups and downs.”

Andy Williams famously boomed, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” in his 1963 Christmas song, and many would agree that the holidays are a wonderful and magical time full of festive cheer, delicious foods, fancy parties and fun gatherings with friends and family. The holidays can also be a stressful time for many and not getting along with relatives only adds to that stress. By avoiding certain topics, finding common ground, cutting back on the Schnapps and knowing where the nearest available exits are, family members everywhere can kick back, relax and enjoy eating, opening presents and watching that favorite holiday movie together.

“Start by saying, ‘I love you all and I’m so glad you’re here, and I’m glad we’re connected with each other,” said University of Columbia professor Peter Coleman in an interview with PBS. “In the past, we’ve gotten into some rough conversations. If possible, let’s agree to respect each other today.”


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