For many families Winter brings the biggest holiday celebrations of the year, with relatives making it a priority to come together even if they have to travel from all over the country. Our own branch of the family tree is growing as our children marry and have children, and I can’t think of anyone I would rather spend time with on a special holiday than my extended family! I love to anticipate laughing, eating, playing games and opening gifts together.
Between holidays, birthdays, weddings, and funerals, there may be many times your family gathers together, and maybe you eagerly look forward it the same way I do – unless your happy holiday bubble bursts because conflict arises between your loved ones. I hear often about the heartache people feel when Christmas or another important occasion is tainted with strained relationships or bad behavior by one or more family members. Somehow, a feud or a bad attitude seems magnified during the season of hope and joy. So, how do you try to restore peace for your special day? Here are some ideas:
If you are hosting the event, feel free to exercise your prerogative to establish some ground rules for conduct in your home. Remember, the most important goal is for everyone to feel welcome and respected, so your expectations should be stated gently, but clearly. Some of the things that can cause a flare-up of tensions may be the use of foul, critical or harsh language, overindulgence in alcohol, division of responsibility for food or clean-up, and the hot-button topics of discussion such as religion, politics, and strong opinions. If your family loves a great debate and can remain friendly and respectful, then go ahead and have fun with it, but differing opinions should never be allowed to spoil the holiday for anyone. It is appropriate for you to set reasonable boundaries based on your own family’s dynamic.
Even if you are not the host, you are in charge of yourself. You can choose to be a welcome addition to the festivities or to be the grumbling Grinch. If you have been in conflict with someone who is invited to the holiday feast, you can make a decision to set aside your disagreement for the day. I don’t recommend sweeping conflict under the rug indefinitely, but for the sake of other family members who may care about you and the other person, agree to set your differences aside for the day and arrange to address the issue at a later date.
A better option, if it’s possible, is to actually settle the conflict before the family gathering. Reconciliation is one of the strong messages of the season, and resolving conflict can help you reconcile your differences. It isn’t easy to talk about topics of conflict, so one technique that may help is the DESC Script. DESCRIBE your observations related to an experience objectively and without a great deal of detail. EXPRESS both your thoughts and feelings. STATE what you want and need. Identify both the positive and negative CONSEQUENCES related to your wants and needs. If you can work out the issue that has come between you and a family member, just think of how much more joy you will experience as you celebrate!
Once you are all together, there are some simple, basic guidelines that help families enjoy the holidays together. The best place to start is with the Golden Rule: Do to others what you want them to do to you. Better yet, shoot for the Platinum Rule: Do to others what you know they want you to do to them. Put yourself in their shoes and treat them accordingly.
Self-control and consideration of the feelings of others is the key ingredient, and that includes helping your younger children be considerate as well. Grandparents sometimes complain that when their adult children visit they “check out” of their parenting responsibilities – in effect, leaving the grandparents or other family members to tend to the little ones and protect their heirloom decorations. Every family has its own unique culture and comfort levels, so make the effort to determine what works best for everyone.
Focus on the value of family and friends and back it up with your words. This is the perfect time of year to let your loved ones know how much they mean to you. Almost every family has some petty disagreements, or minor slights (“My sister hasn’t returned the sweater I loaned her,’ or “Mom wouldn’t babysit when I needed her,” etc.) But above all else, the value of belonging to a “tribe” of people who share your history and love one another is priceless.
Not everyone has the opportunity to be with their families, for many different reasons. I encourage people who feel alone during the holidays to reach out to other people who are also on their own. A sense of community and connection can grow as you choose to act on the desire to be generous and caring. Some clients have told me that spending a holiday by themselves can be a special day of quiet reflection and refreshment – it all depends on how you choose to view it.
To maintain a happy holiday season, keep the value of gifts in perspective. I have said it before, but it is so important to resist the siren call of extreme commercialism when shopping for presents. Try to give thoughtfully, and when you receive a gift, accept it graciously. It seems particularly sad when a holiday celebration is spoiled by an argument or disappointment about material things.
How have you and your family made the holidays work best for everyone? Our readers would love to hear your tips for managing difficult party guests, how to select the right gift for someone or how to keep the focus on the reason for the season.
I hope you are enjoying the fun of planning and preparing for the holidays and that you are experiencing Peace on Earth in your own home as you do!
Live, Work & Relate Well!
Dr. Linaman is a psychologist and executive coach providing counseling and professional development services to individuals, couples, work teams and organizations.