Whether you’re cooking and cleaning or navigating busy airports and highways, gathering with family over the holidays can be stressful. And the problems aren’t always in the prep: Tension often builds when there are many family members under one roof.
The chores and travel associated with family get-togethers are common causes of conflict during the holidays, according to Keira Olivas, licensed marriage and family therapist at Foundations Counseling in Loveland. Adult children are often expected to travel to their parents’ or grandparents’ homes, for example, and having to do that with young children can be difficult. Not only that, she says, but many families also slip back into traditional gender roles during seasonal gatherings due to all the domestic tasks involved.
“It’s more common for women to host for the holidays,” Olivas says. “When families get together, it’s usually the mothers and grandmothers who are doing everything from cleaning to cooking. I’ve heard so many of them say, ‘Why can’t I have some help?’”
Speaking up is a solution, though Olivas says the heat of the moment isn’t the best time to do it. If you feel like you’re always the one hosting or traveling, she recommends planning ahead and making other arrangements. Rotating homes for gatherings and meeting at neutral destinations (such as restaurants) are great solutions, she says, and so is asking for help.
“Many women I’ve seen who share this frustration feel like they have to be the rescuers, and they don’t ask for help,” Olivas says. “Have the kids set the table, and give them small cleaning tasks that are easy to do.”
But communicating your needs to family members isn’t always easy, as those who have bickered with their mother-in-law over Thanksgiving dinner already know. It’s a delicate process that can easily result in hurt feelings.
Tasha Seiter, owner of Heart of the Matter Therapy and Coaching in Fort Collins, has a formula for communicating your needs calmly and effectively: “I feel [___] about [___] and I need [___].” Starting with an “I” statement helps you avoid coming off as accusatory, she says, and using feeling words triggers an empathetic response rather than defensiveness. The “need” lets the other person know how they can help, whether that’s doing the dishes after dinner or offering to host the next gathering.
“When we hear criticism, our natural response is to defend ourselves, and the natural response to that is to feel unheard and double down,” Seiter says. “You have needs and you want to advocate for those, but you know the other person does too, so you want to come to a place where you can work with that and show each other mutual respect.”
Issues with the in-laws
Self-advocacy is also important when family members make you feel unwelcome or are downright mean. Issues with the in-laws tend to pop up around the holidays, Seiter says, and a lot of times, it’s because one person doesn’t feel backed up by their partner.
“I call it the ‘That’s not what she meant’ dance,” Seiter says. “If one partner feels hurt by something an in-law said or did, oftentimes the other partner wants to keep harmony and avoid conflict. But what happens when they say that is their partner feels invalidated; they feel like they aren’t understood for the very real hurt they’re feeling.”
As the partner, what you don’t want to do in response to in-laws’ criticism is show contempt, Olivas says. Not only does that make the situation more awkward for everyone involved, but kids also pick up on it.
“Don’t roll your eyes, express negative body language or be sarcastic. Children see that, and they start mimicking the behavior,” Olivas says.
Another typical response is to leave the room or even the house, she says, but that’s not a good solution either.
“You can be polite and not feel responsible to interact with the person. But don’t isolate yourself,” Olivas says. “That creates frustration because you’re not spending time with the people you want to spend time with.”
Touchy subjects can turn any conversation into an argument, even among family members at a holiday party. Politics, religion, finances, personal problems, future gathering plans and disciplining children are all topics that should be avoided if you want to have a peaceful family gathering, according to Olivas.
Given that election season coincides with the holidays, politics inevitably come up sometimes. But just because family members have different opinions doesn’t mean you have to debate with them over dinner.
“We hear someone’s opinion, and based on our life experience, that doesn’t line up with what we believe, so we try to change the other person’s perspective or we get defensive,” Seiter says. “We don’t want other people to change our opinion; we want to be heard and understood. The last way we’re going to get there is by getting our fighting gloves out.”
Seiter suggests approaching these conversations with interest and respect, recognizing that political beliefs usually come from a place of wanting what’s best for society and the country.
Finding common ground is the key to avoiding political arguments among family members, she says, and focusing on what you have in common in terms of your wants, dreams and values can steer the conversation in a positive direction. If things start to go south, you can always talk about something else.
Olivas recommends breaking up conversations by playing games, going to the park or taking a walk as a family. “Doing activities outside the home can help limit one-on-one time,” she says.
Though specific areas of conflict are unique to each family, the holidays tend to intensify what’s already going on, says Deborah Blythe, owner of Holistic Family Therapy in Fort Collins. She works with clients to develop a “self-reflective habit,” so they aren’t as reactive when dealing with family issues.
“The main components of a self-reflective habit are taking the time to notice your feelings, holding space for what you’re feeling and figuring out how to communicate that to others,” she says. “That self-awareness is going to be really critical to having conversations that reduce the tension and are effective.”
It’s also good to have a plan before you visit family, whether that means booking a hotel (so you have somewhere to escape to every night) or finding a place to take a break and journal, read a book or go for a walk. Blythe says having a close friend to vent to can also provide that much-needed relief.
“Find someone you can be vulnerable with and be honest about what’s going on,” she says. “It might not be with someone who is physically there; it could be a phone call with someone else you trust. Take a moment to laugh together and engage in a way that feels like a positive connection.”