Visiting Your Family This Holiday Season? Learn How To Navigate Tough Topics and Diffuse Family Fights, From Psychologists and Therapists

Photo: Getty Images/JohnnyGreig
When you think of the holiday season, you likely conjure images of family and friends laughing, hugging, and spending quality time together to celebrate and rejuvenate. Another all too common image? Screaming at each other from across the dinner table, or holiday activities being derailed by simmering resentments and disagreements that blow up into something larger. Maybe it was some contentious global event, or a comment about someone’s appearance or life choices that kicked it off, but by the end, the dinner has turned from merry and bright to dour and sour. If you find yourself getting into family fights over the holidays, know that you’re not the only one—and that, with some planning ahead, every meal isn’t destined to leave an aftertaste of regret or anger.

Experts In This Article

It can be healthy to have disagreements, but sometimes these boil over and become more intense and serious than expected. According to clinical psychologist Lauren Cook, PsyD, author of Generation Anxiety: A Millennial and Gen Z Guide to Staying Afloat in an Uncertain World, there are several reasons why the holidays are primed for tension. First off, consider that many people may be returning to one central place, like gathering at someone’s house or returning to their hometown, from further flung locations where they’ll be in close proximity to each other often for an extended time period. Spending so much time together is bound to kick up disagreements, even over seemingly innocuous matters. Plus, if you’re used to carrying on your own routines or being in your own space, you might feel extra pressure that can boil over.

All the shared history at the table plays a role, too. Dr. Cook says many people are close with their families but have major differences of opinion that could trigger disagreements, especially if alcohol is involved. Dr. Cook says people may be drinking more than usual around the holidays, and because alcohol lowers inhibitions and can make you aggressive, steadily flowing drinks can put people in argumentative, defensive moods. Someone who is drunk isn’t going to make a rational conversation partner and may overstep boundaries or act in ways they wouldn’t if they were sober, she adds, which can give even innocuous conversations unexpected tension.

Why fighting with family feels so icky during the holidays

Fighting never feels particularly good psychologically or emotionally because of the potential to damage a relationship. When you sense stress, your limbic system—the part of the brain that includes the amygdala, which processes memories and emotions, especially fear—then activates a fight or flight response to regain safety.

Given the holidays are meant to be a happy time to connect, you may find yourself feeling guilty for souring the mood—know that this is normal. “Fighting with family can bring on all sorts of complex emotions, even in response to something seemingly small, because of all the years of history that you have with them,” says Neha Chaudhary, MD, a double board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and chief medical officer at Modern Health. Because of the reasons above, even small-seeming arguments can feel major, and you may feel guilty, sad, or even wonder how they happened at all.

"Fighting with family can bring on all sorts of complex emotions, even in response to something seemingly small, because of all the years of history that you have with them."—Neha Chaudhary, MD, psychiatrist

No matter what emotions fights elicit, Dr. Chaudhary encourages giving yourself grace and giving yourself space to step back from the situation to sort out your feelings without guilt.

How to prevent fights before they start—and diffuse them after they begin

Set boundaries

Regardless of the topic, the best way to preempt fights is to set boundaries beforehand. This way, you can gently redirect someone when uncomfortable topics arise. If there are certain matters you won’t discuss, perhaps about your personal life, set these for yourself ahead of time, suggests Dr. Cook.

You can also get a trusted family member to help you with this. Let’s say you recently went through a traumatic breakup and are worried about fielding questions about your ex at the dinner table. Talk to a family member you’re close with about how you would love to not spend the whole holiday recounting the breakup—they can then discreetly spread the word to everyone else so it comes up less or hopefully not at all.

You can also set boundaries as a group. If it's needed, mental health expert Erica Cuni, LMFT says you can even make a pact as a group to try to preserve the peace and outline which topics to avoid.

If you find that your relatives repeatedly violate your boundaries in ways that threaten your well-being or safety, both Dr. Cook and therapist Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT, say you should feel free to disengage and leave entirely to restore your sense of safety if you have to.

Cut each other some slack

If you're visiting these people in the first place, you likely care about them and your connection with them on some level. Affording everyone the benefit of the doubt and cutting them some slack can also help and cut tension, too, says Divaris Thompson. Remember that the goal is likely to spend time together, not enter a battle royale.

Introduce some levity

Taking some of the seriousness out of the situation goes a long way toward diffusing tension. "As much as family members often know how to push each other’s buttons, they also often know how to make the other person smile," says Dr. Chaudhary. Pause arguments by doing something especially kind to bolster the love you already feel, like saying something that will make them smile or laugh.

"For some people it may be an opportunity to both remember you care for one another, and it can help small disagreements dissolve, or at least make them easier to table until it’s a better time to discuss them calmly," she adds.

Take a break

Employing some disrupting tactics to give your nervous system a chance to calm down helps. When you feel yourself getting worked up, you may step away to go into a different room. Grab someone else and start doing something else, suggests Divaris Thompson.

Drinking a glass of water helps, too. Even mild dehydration can negatively affect mood and your ability to think clearly, so pausing to hydrate can help you calm down. "Take a break, go wash your hands, wash your face, text a friend, or just sit alone in the bathroom for a few minutes just to bring your nervous system down so you can gather your thoughts," she says.

Know when to walk away

There are usually signs a conversation is about to go left before it happens—picking up on these can help you either redirect or disengage entirely. Walking away from a fight isn’t a sign of weakness and in fact, can go a long way toward preserving a relationship. If you notice the person you’re speaking with exhibiting body language that signals it’s time to walk away from an argument, take initiative, and do so. As body language expert Blanca Cobb previously told Well+Good, the physical signs it’s time to disengage include eye rolling, looks of contempt that convey disrespect, eyes narrowing, or shoulders slumping—all of these are signs of lack of respect, aggression, and disgust, which signal a discussion is about to escalate.

Surprisingly, Dr. Cook says the cause of fighting with family over the holidays is not so much the topic itself, but rather “the way the conversation happens that gets people fired up.” With that said, there are some subjects that are known to activate people, and they generally fall into a few major buckets.

The 3 major topics that start family fights over the holidays

Belief systems, like politics and religion

There's an old adage that politics and religion are the two topics to never bring up at a party because they are sure to get people going. Plenty of families share belief systems, like political affiliation or religion, with their family members—but many others don't.

Someone's support of or aversion to a specific candidate may give you a takeaway about their beliefs and values, says Dr. Cook—if that conflicts with your own, you may feel especially motivated to try to convince them otherwise or defend your position. Additionally, how involved someone is with a cause—say, their level of partisanship or devoutness—can also mean they're especially likely to dig in during a disagreement.

What to do: According to Divaris Thompson, talking about politics or personal beliefs like religion doesn't have to be so heated. "If this is their opinion, most times using active listening and noticing your breathing is the first thing," she says."Staying calm, composed, and doing some self-soothing techniques [like breathing]" can help you weather these conversations. If you're able to engage without escalating, you can also share your points. If you can't, ask to table it or say you're done.

Cuni advises using "I statements" to show how you feel and to convey that you're actively listening, too. These conversations can also be more tame if they're one-on-one affairs rather than large group ones where people start tapping others in to support their points.

Global events and social issues

Another issue that's sure to get tempers flared? Ongoing global events and social issues. Major events happening on the global stage—like wars, protests, or other major news events—are likely to provoke passionate reactions, says Dr. Cook. The same goes for social issues that can polarize people based on different belief systems, such as gun rights or abortion. Similar to why politics gets heated, she says that these types of topics are really about the underlying issues they represent.

What to do: Because these are typically about more deeply held beliefs, Dr. Cook says the best thing to do here is to pick your battles and decide whether this is something to even touch because changing minds—and sometimes even honoring another perspective—is very hard. "If you feel like you can come at it from a curious standpoint and understand the other person's perspective, you may dip a toe in the pool," she says. "But if you feel like you're entering the conversation with an emotional bat in your hand and you're ready to swing that's a cue it's not a good [topic] to lean into," she says.

"If you feel like you're entering the conversation with an emotional bat in your hand and you're ready to swing that's a cue it's not a good [topic] to lean into."—Lauren Cook, PsyD, clinical psychologist

But sometimes you may be pleasantly surprised. If you've had previous conversations about these topics that have been fruitful, you may be able to have another.

In a way, some of this could involve some grief work, too: You may know or come to realize that you and your family member won't see eye to eye on something and that realization could potentially stir up some heavy emotions in you. If that's the case, says Dr. Cook, it's time to do the work of figuring out whether you can keep the relationship and advance it forward despite this. The holidays may be clarifying moments for this.

Know that your inability or lack of desire to go to bat for a certain issue doesn't make you a bad ally or invalidate your own beliefs. "If your emotional bandwidth is to sit and make small talk, then that's the win for the evening," she says. "You have to honor your needs and what you're capable of and not feel like you're not doing your due diligence if you don't want to get into it with Uncle Bob." If talks are getting traumatizing, harmful, or hateful, do what it takes to feel safe, whether that's defending yourself or walking away.

Personal life and decisions

This bucket of personal topics is all about what's happening with you. Think: your dating life, your health, your physical appearance, your choices around fertility and family planning, or choices you make that impact your finances or life circumstance. Maybe you have a relative who is constantly pressing your buttons about when you'll find a partner or your parents don't miss an opportunity to express that they think your career path isn't the most lucrative.

What to do: Because these discussions usually involve unsolicited advice or judgment, Dr. Cook says they rarely end well. This is the topic where it's really important to outline your boundaries ahead of time and to enforce them. No matter how much you love your family, you get to control how much large-scale discussion there is of your personal business—whether that's your love life, your health, your appearance, or your career and finances. If people are offering unsolicited judgment and advice, try gently redirecting and keep reinforcing those boundaries until you feel comfortable. Doing some advance work helps here, too—enlist trusted family to spread the word that your personal life isn't up for discussion.

Both Dr. Cook and Divaris Thompson say this realm can be a place where family pleasantly surprises you, too. The best venue for genuine discussions of your personal business is one-on-one—not a round table discussion.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Field, Matt et al. “Acute alcohol effects on inhibitory control and implicit cognition: implications for loss of control over drinking.” Alcoholism, clinical and experimental research vol. 34,8 (2010): 1346-52. doi:10.1111/j.1530-0277.2010.01218.x
  2. Beck, Anne, and Andreas Heinz. “Alcohol-related aggression-social and neurobiological factors.” Deutsches Arzteblatt international vol. 110,42 (2013): 711-5. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2013.0711
  3. Rajmohan, V, and E Mohandas. “The limbic system.” Indian journal of psychiatry vol. 49,2 (2007): 132-9. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.33264

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