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Surviving Family Conflict at the Holidays: Advice From a Mom, a Priest, and a Therapist

We asked experts—a busy mom, a priest and a family therapist—for help coping with family from Thanksgiving through the New Year. Here are six steps to making it through.

Far too often the holidays come and go, leaving a trail of emotionally exhausted and psychologically destroyed. Despite the quaintness of the season, family parties and tetchy in-law situations can make it hard to remember why this time of year is considered to be the most mirthful.

This year, why not eschew the anguish of family get-togethers by preparing yourself in advance? Why not take the advice of our three experts— a psychologist, a priest and a busy working mother of two — all of whom offered their take on interpersonal best practices.

The following are six simple steps to making the most of your holiday experience:

Temper expectations

Anyone who has ever been responsible for the holiday cooking knows the abject terror something as seemingly harmless as roasting a turkey can induce. For days before the event we torture ourselves mercilessly. So overwhelmed are we with irrational fears (what if the oven inexplicably stops working!?) and dread, we whip ourselves into a frenzy.

Dr. Doris Rosin, a Farmington Hills psychologist, says that irrational behavior is the result of not living in the present.

“The dread comes from past memories, past needs not being met, past experiences that were somehow hurtful,” she explains.

To avoid these trappings, Rosin recommends dropping your guard.

“People become too fearful,” she said. “Let yourself be pleasantly surprised.”

Avoid the pressure to impress

Mother-in-law’s a whiz in the kitchen and you’d like to curry her favor with a gourmet bacchanalia? Rosin thinks it’s best to avoid these sort of trappings.

“If you are taking on enormous challenges in the hopes that evaluations will go well, you are setting yourself up for disappointment," she said.

While that 8-step pumpkin Tiramisu looked gorgeous in last month’s Martha Stewart Living, sugary treats are simply not important enough to ruin your day.

Have an attitude of gratitude

Fr. Brendan Walsh of St. Joseph Parish in Dexter tells his congregation to practice patience and gratitude during the holidays.

"My advice would be to have an attitude of gratitude," he said. "Family gatherings for Thanksgiving and Christmas are a time to be thankful for the loved ones in your life."

Walsh said one way to avoid offending a relative or friend is to limit alcohol consumption.

"Loose lips sink ships," Walsh said.

As regrettable as it is, even the most loving of clans will fight. While it is, of course, best to turn the other cheek, it’s important for spouses to show solidarity with each other when tempers do flare.

Citing Colossians 3:12-17, Walsh said families should remember to practice humility during the holidays.

"As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity."

Think of the children

Deb Agoli Krieger of Grosse Pointe Farms says that instead of letting herself succumb to the stress of the holidays, she genuinely views hosting her family and in-laws for Christmas as an opportunity, not to mention an honor.

“I like that it means my home will get a really thorough cleaning and that my whole family will work together," she said.

Involving the kids, Krieger said, is key.

“One of the things we do is get the kids involved in the decorating,” she said.

For her, having at least one family tradition for the kids to look forward to is essential.

“We have lots of family decorations that have been passed down to us over the years.  As we open and go through the boxes,  inevitably, we start sharing memories of the people who gave us these decorations, some of whom are no longer with us.”

Christy Vander Haagen of Dexter said assigning "jobs" for guests to do will also help eliminate drama.

"I keep in mind that life is way too short to worry about petty differences. Cooking, baking, and 'preparedness' drama has never been an issue mainly because that is part of the fun," she said. "Being in the kitchen is a great way to avoid drama. No one wants to mess with the chef."

Volunteer for the less fortunate

This one’s pretty simple. To be sure, nothing cures holiday solipsism quite like a dose of perspective. Not only is volunteering a great opportunity to teach children to be grateful, it’s a great way for parents to shake themselves out of seasonal funks.

Use visualization

Sound New Age-y? Maybe so, but, Rosin says the one thing she incurs time and again this time of year is patients who are at their most defensive. She suggests using visualization for a pre-emptive strike: “Actually envision yourself handling uncomfortable situations with grace. Focus on the ways you can diffuse hard feelings. What might it look like? How might you best respond?”

Don’t tolerate abuse

While a certain amount of family dysfunction is par for the course, the unfortunate truth is that some families struggle with extreme abuse. For those who come from physically or psychologically dangerous situations, Rosin says it is OK to skip the get-togethers.

“You are not bad if you don’t go,” she said. “You are taking care of yourself.”

There are many options for handling the holidays with aplomb. Hopefully the aforementioned coping techniques will assist in avoiding the worst of the worse. But, if the techniques do not come in handy, perhaps this simple-yet-precise nugget of advice from Rosin is all we really need to know anyhow.

Rosin says that, if despite your best efforts you are still faced with belligerence, ask yourself the following question before you make a move:  “Can I do this lovingly?” If the answer is no, she says, “Don’t do it.”

If you have questions for Dr. Doris Rosin, she can be reached at psychnrg@gmail.com

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