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Have strategies if you want to avoid conflict, anxiety during holidays

By: Maria Allard | Metro | Published November 20, 2023


METRO DETROIT — The Thanksgiving turkey is fresh out of the oven, the mashed potatoes are ready and the Christmas tree lights are twinkling.

It’s time to eat, but tension is also on the menu.

That’s because, in many cases, the conversation around the dinner table has turned into a political debate, with family members in opposite camps. When someone shares an opinion on the current state of the country, it turns into a heated argument. The hearts are racing, the fists are clenched and the voices become louder. It’s like Archie Bunker and Michael Stivic in the 1970s sitcom “All in the Family.”

But this isn’t a comedy show, and holiday conflict with family is something that could arise. One offhand remark could set off another guest. Add alcohol into the mix, and tempers flare. Some people thrive on debating hot topics — religion, politics, sports, the COVID-19 pandemic — while others want to hide inside their Christmas stockings and wait for the holiday hostility to end.

If you want to avoid tension during the holidays, there are some strategies you can try, said Carrie Krawiec, a licensed marriage counselor and family therapist from the Birmingham Maple Clinic.

“There are people who are conflict prone and some who are conflict avoidance,” Krawiec said. “You can only control your behavior.”

One way to cut down on the disharmony is to ask your guests to wait until after dinner to hold a heated discussion or tell them politely not to debate around the children present. Going into the garage to continue a tense conversation is another option. Also, think about the way your comments might come across to others, and remember that people have their own beliefs, values and opinions that might not align with yours.

During holiday visits, there are different family roles, too, that play into the dynamics of the get-together.

“There’s the class clown, the people pleaser, the black sheep and the know-it-all,” Krawiec said. “They invoke different reactions for different reasons.”

Bringing up the past can be a pleasant experience for some, but it also can bring up bad memories.

“Memories and traditions may be different,” Krawiec. “One family member might remember something fondly, and others not so much. That could cause us to question ourselves.”

However, conflict is not always “a bad thing,” Krawiec said. It can sometimes make the conversation more interesting or get people to look at situations in a different way.

“Sometimes I like to hear people’s thoughts,” she said. “It can be very invigorating.”

But if the atmosphere gets too heated, take a few minutes for yourself, Krawiec suggested, such as a visit to the bathroom, moving into another room or taking a walk around the block “to let the moment pass.” Deep breathing can also calm a person’s nerves.

If you feel like you might need to leave altogether, should tension arise, figure out a code word ahead of time with family. Say the code word to your spouse and children in an unassuming way so they know it’s time to leave.

There are also individuals who feel social anxiety when invited to parties. Krawiec said that “it’s very common” to feel anxious when going to someone’s house where you don’t know anyone. One suggestion is to try to meet someone who will be at the gathering beforehand. Or plan on just staying for a while and not all night if you feel uncomfortable.

“You can stay if it’s pleasant enough,” Krawiec said. “It’s an opportunity for you to get out if you’re alone for the holidays. Someone cared about you enough to include you.”

Pontus Leander, associate professor of social psychology and director of Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Wayne State University, said that while “it’s not always possible,” the party host can provide a gentle reminder of the norms and expectations.

“They can do it in a light and fun way,” Leander said. “You don’t want people to feel controlled. If the host is not able to set norms and expectations, recognize your own boundaries and limits. Just because someone says something does not mean we need to react. Don’t take the bait. You can only control your responses. Sometimes silence is the right response.”

Other guests not involved in a tense conversation also could take on the role of peacemaker.

“Bystanders have the power to disrupt the flow of the conversation,” Leander said. “If you see it getting uncomfortable, ask, ‘Can you guys talk after dinner or at another time?’ This signals to them this is not the time or place. Other people might be relieved as well.”

Leander pointed out that holiday get-togethers are different now because people can keep in touch all year via social media.

“We are living in a very modern communication environment. People have a way of interacting all year round. Everyone already knows what everyone is doing. It’s not how it was 20 or 30 years ago when we used to see each other once a year,” he said. “People say harmful things online and you see them at the holidays. They feel this is their chance to push back.”

If you find yourself getting worked up, take a 10-second break.

“Your mind and body will coordinate and be OK again,” Leander said.

Leander suggested writing down ideas of what to talk about when visiting with family and friends.

“Make a list of what would be nice to know about them and what people are excited about. That will let them speak,” Leander said. “They’ll find the conversation more meaningful. It does take effort from everyone. If a conflict occurs, ask a new question.”