Worried about Family Conflicts this Holiday Season?

Guest writer Siggie Cohen, MA, PhD (abd), developmental child & family therapist, provides tips for surviving family conflicts this holiday season
By Dr. Siggie CohenPublished on 12/22/2016 at 10:00 AM EDT

During the holidays it is common to have many family get-togethers. However, some may experience parents and in-laws, siblings, cousins, and all other family extensions, as too much. For many people, sayings like:  “Family is everything,”  “Blood is thicker than water,” and “no one will ever be there for you like family,” may only be partially true.

If the time you spend with your family at the holidays is all joyous music and candlelit dinners and laughs and cuddles with hot cocoa in front of a fireplace, consider yourself lucky and continue to do all you are already doing so well. But does anyone else need some help managing the holidays?

Spending time with family for some people may feel like trying to stomach an outdated, heavily saturated recipe of past emotions and present triggers, all bouncing together in a very tight dwelling to a mixture of competing tunes. The chaos can be unfavorable, even painful. And regardless of obligation, it may go down more like a spoonful of medicine no matter how much you sugarcoat it. And especially in our very commercialistic culture of picture-perfect family holiday get-togethers that grin at us from every commercial – as if that’s not only the most obvious, but the only way to be – some may wonder why they don’t look, or feel, like that.

Holidays aim to bring comfort; and home should be the safest place for us. But intimacy, the glue of home and family, is also the greatest creator of friction: The closer we are to one another, the more we step on each other’s toes, then rip each other apart when needing to individuate and separate. With great difference in personal experiences – some that carry pain and resentment, and difference in expectations – family time is an intricate piece of music, if we wish to orchestrate it well and successfully.  

But in the midst of this great opportunity for ample family time with an odd assembly of people, serious arguments and rivalries can erupt; you may find yourself involved in a conflict, trapped in one, or simply exposed to it, as your children watch. Hot button topics such as politics and religion, or more mundane ones as parenting styles and individual practices can clash like the Titanic and an iceberg, and can easily turn any good intention into a disaster. So how can we turn this ship around?

The family “village” can be of incredible benefit for everyone, especially for children who witness our interactions. Get-togethers can serve as a training ground of endless lessons and insights about the self and others. Encountering differences is what opens children up to diversity and helps them build tolerance to varied backgrounds and opinions, individual needs and personal beliefs. It teaches them how it all not only can survive, but co-exist side by side, and even colorfully flourish. It’s precisely those family members that make your skin crawl who your child may find appealing and fascinating. This, in return, can help you find a different angle to your own experience with them, and perhaps even alter the problematic dynamic you’ve had with them in the past.

Here are some tips that may help you keep children’s well-being in mind, especially when engaged in a conflict.

  • It is easy to say the wrong thing when either triggered, or simply overwhelmed and tired. Be mindful of that, and manage yourself with awareness, by using tactics of self-calming such as: breathe before you speak, walk away, get busy doing something, or take a break all together.
  • Watch how your children are watching the circumstances unfold – how do they seem to be processing? Do they seem uncomfortable, or frightened? Check in with them to see what they’re feeling.
  • Be authentic in your interactions with relatives, especially in front of your children: It may mean that at times you won’t be able hide a conflict from the children so explain what you can, in an age-appropriate manner, and present all the arguing sides, not just your own.
  • Disagreements are normal; but heightened drama around those disagreements is unnecessary. And children often experience “different” as “bad.”  Explain to them how different is just different; not good, nor bad; display safety and trust by showing your children that differences exist, and that differences should not be frightening or damaging, but acceptable.
  • Traveling and overnight stays with young children are challenging. Routine is interrupted and everyone’s personal zone of comfort is compromised. Remember that this situation of displacement is temporary: help everyone feel more at home by planning child-friendly environments and activities, or at least allow sufficient breaks throughout the day to help everyone feel less stressed and more comfortable.
  • If family get-togethers produce comments from extended family that feel intrusive or demeaning to your authority as a parent, know that the exposure of your children to differences in child-rearing approaches does not undermine your influence, it is simply exposing them to differences. As their parent, you are still the primary influence in their lives.  

Family is not everything; it is far from perfect, not all virtuous or wholesome like a holiday commercial, but it is a need despite its limitations and inadequacies, it is important to our health and to our sanity as humans, especially as children. Children thrive on family connections, and the embrace of the family cradle provides them with a solid infrastructure that is life-long. Experiencing love, care and care-taking within the family take precedent over most friction or anxiety that time with family may cause. So remind yourself of the many benefits your children are gaining through this grand exposure to extended family: diversity, adaptability, flexibility, even the knowhow of crisis and recovery, seeing how differences intertwine, and how a family can survive and succeed beyond the challenges.

We tend to think choices are always better for us, yet there is a sense of comfort that comes with anything that is a given. So as family is not a choice, but a given, it transcends a special kind of comfort. And that is a blessing of its own unique kind.

Happy Holidays!


68600643-lindakasianphotography-0226-1Siggie Cohen has been working with families and their children on all concerns, challenges, and issues – typical and/or crisis related, in homes and schools, for over 20 years. In her work she is practical, intuitive, diverse, precise, knowledgable and compassionate.  Siggie is a facilitator of parent & me classes, a child development professor at Pierce College, and together with her best friend and colleague, the co-founder of Good Life Academy, a center for all modalities of therapy for the mind, body and spirit.  Through her incredible and extensive experience, Siggie has created a following on social media for her “siggieisms” –  parenting video clips with tools and tips for the everyday challenges of the art of raising children well. 

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