5 Tips to Avoid Holiday Conflicts with Your Family

High angle shot of family members decorating Thanksgiving turkey with citrus
As soon as the holidays are in sight, a few things come to mind. Namely, how to decorate your home and what to cook for your holiday dinner. What might be helpful to think about, however, is how to avoid family conflicts during it all. While the holiday season can be the most wonderful time of the year, it can also be the most dramatic. Before you know it, what you thought (and hoped) would be a joyous, stress-free reunion has become a space for political debate, relationship judgment, and more. In these situations, it helps to know how to handle triggers to proactively avoid blowups. To help you do so, we chatted with Risha London Nathan, LCSW, HHC, a licensed therapist in New York City. Discover the five tips that she swears by to avoid holiday conflicts (as well as those that may surface year-round).

How to Avoid Holiday Conflicts with Your Family

1. Be aware of expectations

“If you go into situations with the expectation that family or friends will be different than what they’ve been in the past, it tends to be a recipe for disaster,” Nathan says. “Managing expectations is something that’s helpful for people across the board. By lowering expectations, there’s less room for disappointment. If the expectations are set high, people are bound to be very let down and there’s a tendency to pull away. A helpful way to gauge your expectations is just to ask yourself what you’re hoping the experience will be. [This makes it] easier to weed out what’s really important from what might be more of a fantasy.”

2. Check in with yourself

A great way to avoid conflict is to check in with yourself before you have the chance to feel triggered. “Ask yourself some questions about where you’re at so that you’re able to reset a little if anything is coming up for you before you go into the situation,” Nathan suggests. “You can start by asking simple things like: How am I feeling today? How do I feel about seeing so-and-so? Do I feel triggered in thinking about what conversations might come up? What do I need to be able to have a more positive experience? This helps with grounding and being present. [Plus, it makes you] aware of what’s going on so that you’re better able to handle whatever comes at you.”

Family at Thanksgiving dinner table giving cheers and avoiding holiday conflicts

3. Think about establishing boundaries

Nathan says that if you tend to reach a point of no return with your mood, it’s a good idea to give yourself space when needed. “This doesn’t mean avoidance and running away,” she explains. “It means using your voice and being able to calmly and rationally say what you need to avoid conflict. For example: ‘Hey mom, I’m feeling pretty drained after all the family time last night. I’m going to take some me time and go to a yoga class, but I’m happy to help you later.’ Establishing boundaries builds self-esteem and confidence. It also sets some ground rules that generally end up feeling positive for everyone involved. If people push back against your boundaries, it’s important to continue to state what you need and remind them that you’ll be far better when you’re with them if you’re able to do what you need to do for yourself.”

4. Kindly shut down triggering topics

“Some topics that tend to come up are politics, environment, weight, and relationship (or lack thereof) commentary,” Nathan acknowledges. “Be aware of the places where you want to lash out or completely pull away. Instead, focus on trying to stay engaged in a way that lets people know what’s okay and what’s not,” as in, “‘Wow, Uncle George, you seem really passionate about your political views. I get it; I am too. I’m wondering if we might be able to put that convo aside since it tends to trigger a lot of emotion for me and it takes away from all the fun and joy I feel in seeing everyone.’ This is a gentle way to let people know you’re not rejecting them but that you’re unwilling to go to a place that will just leave everyone angry and disconnected.”

5. Remind yourself that all things are temporary

“Whenever you get overly stressed or worried about interactions, it can be helpful to remember that the feeling will pass,” Nathan explains. “Separating your feelings from thoughts about what it all means can be a helpful way to manage your mood. If things feel overwhelming or inescapable, remind yourself that there’s a time limit. Do the things you need to avoid holiday conflicts and set some healthy boundaries. Focus on enjoying your experience for what it is: imperfect. You’ll end up feeling better within the visit, and less guilty afterward.”

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