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Effectively handling holiday family conflicts

Debbie Chapman, CSU Extension Agent/Southeast Area

Do you have a favorite Christmas movie? Mine is definitely National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation because of the great funny quotes throughout the movie. And I imagine many people—like me—can relate to the story because of the picture we have in our minds of a wonderful Christmas and the reality of frustrating situations a house full of family can bring.

In one of the first scenes, Clark W. Grizwold happily declares, “We’re kicking off our fun old fashion family Christmas by heading out to the country in the old front-wheel drive sleigh to embrace the frosty majesty of the winter landscape and select that most important of Christmas symbols.”

Then, further into the movie after everything goes wrong, the relatives try to leave. Clark loses it and demands, “Where do you think you’re going? Nobody’s leaving. Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned Christmas. No, no. We’re all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here. We’re gonna press on, and we’re gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap danced with Danny [bleep!] Kaye. And when Santa squeezes his fat white [bleep!] down that chimney tonight, he’s gonna find the jolliest bunch of [bleep!] this side of the nuthouse.”

Can you relate? Are the holidays a joyous time for your family? Or is it a time of frustration and conflict? When we spend more time than usual with family members—whether it’s our spouse, our children, or relatives who have travelled to be with us—sometimes the perfect holiday picture we imagine doesn’t appear in real life. Why is that?

There can be several causes of conflict with a house full of relatives. Some examples might be:

Nancy resents that she’s the only one preparing food and cleaning up after meals

Jim just wants to relax and watch a movie, but the kids are running between him and the television

The kids become bored due to a more relaxed schedule when they’ve been used to a routine at school or are unable to spend time with their friends who are out of town

Grandma oversteps bounds by telling Nancy she should quit her job and be a stay-home mom

Grandpa has a sarcastic sense of humor that he often takes too far, reminding Jim how he felt constantly criticized by him as a boy

In a movie it can be funny when someone explodes as a result of frustrations. But, in real life it can cause further problems. How do you survive? How do you keep from snapping? 

Well, first, take a deep breath! How you verbalize your concerns and frustrations can make all the difference in the world. You have three options: 1) hold it in, 2) vent or criticize, or 3) complain in a way that helps family members understand each other better. Let’s look at those three options more closely.

Hold It In

One result of holding it in can lead to unresolved anger. How do you know if you have unresolved anger? In their publication, Understanding Anger for Your Health and Relationships, University of Nebraska Extension educators and specialists say, “If you have been hurt emotionally by someone important to you and you find yourself feeling angry, hostile, and irritable on a regular basis, you may have unresolved anger.”

The authors say that unresolved anger “can make it difficult to trust others, to use effective strategies to manage emotions, and to see the positive parts of ourselves.” That often leads to depression and anxiety.

So, option #1 is not the way to go!

Vent or Criticize

First, let’s define criticism. Dr. Shruti S. Poulsen of Purdue University says, “The information expressed through criticism is usually not specific. It may have blaming in it. The expression is usually harsh and judgmental. It may cause the other person to go on the defensive and become angry. Criticism tends to focus on a person’s character or personality.”

Criticism is usually done in a loud tone of voice and often uses words like “never,” “all the time,” and “always.”

Examples of criticism:

Nancy might yell at Jim, “You never help around here! You’re so lazy!”

Jim might shout, “Stop it! You kids are always so disrespectful and wild!”

Nancy might react to Grandma with blaming, “You’re just a busybody all the time!”

Jim might react to his unresolved anger with Grandpa with a sarcastic comeback.

The University of Nebraska Extension authors confirm that venting is not a healthy way to deal with frustrations. It can lessen your ability to make good decisions, damage your health, and cause real damage to personal relationships. 

So, if option #2 is the wrong way to go, how can we handle these frustrations?

Carefully Worded Complaints

You’re probably wondering, “What’s the difference between complaining and criticizing?” We often consider complaints to be the same as criticizing because they also express negative feelings and anger. But Dr. Poulsen explains that a complaint “can be a specific statement of anger, unhappiness, or other negative feeling. You tell [the other person] that you are angry, unhappy, or displeased about something he or she has done. Complaints provide [the other person] with specific information about your feelings. They also provide specific information about [their] behavior that bothers you.”

Even though complaints may be uncomfortable, voicing your concerns and feelings in a way that reduces criticism can create a much stronger relationship. Reducing criticism helps in maintaining a balance between negative feelings and positive feelings in relationships. John Gottman, a relationship researcher, calls this balance the “magic ratio” of 5 to 1. That means for every onenegative feeling or interaction, there need to be fivepositive feelings or interactions.

Let’s compare the criticisms listed earlier with appropriate complaints:

Criticism: “You never help around here! You’re so lazy!”

Complaint: “I’m unhappy about being left alone to do the cooking and cleaning up after such a large meal. When that happens, I feel like my need for relaxation on a holiday doesn’t matter to you.”

Criticism: “Stop it! You kids are always so disrespectful and wild!”

Complaint: “Hey kids, I want you to have fun but the running between me and the television is keeping me from being able to watch this movie. I need you to go play in another room.”

Criticism: “You’re just a busybody all the time!”

Complaint: “I feel upset when you tell me I need to quit my job and stay home. That’s a decision for Jim and me to make.”

Criticism: sarcastic comeback

Complaint: “I really enjoy your humor when it isn’t sarcastic. But when it’s sarcastic I get angry because it feels like you’re tearing people down” (then he could give a specific example).

No relationship is completely criticism free. But when criticizing becomes a habit, it can really damage relationships. Learning to rephrase, to keep an even tone, and lower the volume in your voice takes practice but it’s worth it. Increasing the positives in relationships is necessary to maintain that “magic ratio.” Other ways to increase the positives include: showing interest, listening to understand, being appreciative, showing care and concern, and lightening things up now and then.

So, lighten up with your favorite movie and some popcorn! Rephrase those criticisms to carefully worded complaints and have an enjoyable holiday season!