How To Avoid Family Conflict Over The Holidays

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Arguing with family over holiday dinner is as common as serving turkey or ham. (Getty Images)

The holidays are all about spending time with family. You’ve seen all the movies, families caroling, opening gifts, or seated at the large dining room table full of food and smiles. Everybody’s happy, happy, happy. 

But then there’s reality. Truth is, getting together with family can pose challenges, especially when most people are already stressed from the hoopla surrounding the season. You want those family moments to be magical, not miserable. Here’s how to keep the holidays merry.


Despite movies and commercials, families are not perfect. 

“Be realistic about who your family is and what they are capable of,” says Gwen Uss, a life coach and founder of Hopeful Heart Solutions in Commack. 

Many families are dealing, or not dealing, with strained relationships, past hurts, and loss, making family time interesting to say the least. 

“Having realistic expectations of yourself and your family will help set the bar where it needs to be and can minimize disappointments,” says Uss. “When you see your family for who they are and not what you wish they were, you can accept them in a way that may even shed some light on their good qualities.”


Bring your own car. 

If you know from past experience that things may take a turn for the worse at some point during the day, (perhaps when the alcohol has been flowing a while), having your own car is key just in case you need to extricate yourself, says Uss.  Also, resist the urge to feel as though you have to stay the whole time.  

She says, “Give yourself permission to leave early if need be.”


Get some friendly games going.  

“It can be difficult for families to be together with unstructured time,” says Rachel Perlstein, a psychotherapist with InFlow Wellness in Manhattan. 

“If it’s hard for your family to get together without getting into it when left to their own devices, plan some activities that involve being on the same team and working together,” she continues. “This can foster cooperation, team building, and provide an opportunity for people to get a bit silly and out of their comfort zones. If your family isn’t into games, get everyone to participate in cooking and give/assign jobs.” 


If there’s an existing family beef, though you all may be in the same room together, some experts don’t advise settling it during this festive time. 

“The holidays are fraught with expectations,”  says Mark Borg, Ph.D., a psychologist in Manhattan. 

“There is no reason to more heavily burden them with the resolution of some previous family conflict,” he continues. “In fact, I would see that as a setup and more indicative of someone’s mixed feelings about actually resolving the existing conflict. The best way to address the existing conflict (and avoid putting it into the category of elephant in the room) is to acknowledge it and, if you are willing, suggest a moratorium on dealing with it and set up a time — a time unburdened by holiday stress — to do so.”


While you don’t want to come off as cheap if you’re hosting, you also don’t want to provide too much fuel for a family feud. 

Limit alcohol availability. If you’re a guest, decide that this is not the time you are going to drink yourself silly. 

“If your family is often argumentative or easily agitated, less alcohol may be better,” says Perlstein. “Although it seems counterintuitive, people may get along better if they are more in control of what they say and how they interact with others.”


Get off on a good foot.  

“Start the meal by asking each person to share something they are grateful for or appreciate about another person in the room,” says Perlstein. “This gratitude exercise can be done aloud or just silently. This helps build cohesion as well as creates an atmosphere of positivity.”