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How to avoid Christmas conflict

Jane Gunn

Christmas is often dubbed ‘The most wonderful time of the year’, but not everyone feels that sense of fun and excitement in the run up, or on the big day itself. For some, Christmas can be a time of anxiety and stress, especially if there is dysfunction in a relationship or you have to spend time with difficult members of the family. Add to that alcohol, perhaps being cooped up and feeling a bit exhausted and it’s a potential Yuletide recipe for disaster. Internationally renowned mediator and conflict specialist, Jane Gunn, explains how you can take the eggshells out of potential Christmas conflicts.

  • Understand conflict. Conflict is multiplied by actions and reactions. By detaching ourselves slightly and taking a step back, we can sometimes better understand, defuse a situation and create stability. Even if harsh words are being thrown, you don’t have to respond in kind. You can’t control someone else, but you can choose to respond rather than react in the heat of the moment. 
  • Set clear boundaries. Try not to please or satisfy other people’s agendas, needs and interests without fully considering your own, perhaps because you fear upsetting others or being excluded. Be polite but firm about what you would like guests to bring, when they need to arrive and when they need to RSVP by for any occasion that you are hosting. Don’t feel you have to agree if they want to bring someone else with them. If you are hosting, then carve out your own way of doing things with kind intention.
  • Have a strategy to deal with difficult relatives. Tolerating and respecting differences is a great starting point but agreeing with your partner and other immediate family members subjects to be avoided may help. It is also fine to take a breather if you need to walk away. A seating plan may be tempting!
  • Recognise your triggers & mitigate against them. The easiest way to identify emotional triggers is by looking for changes in your body such as a racing heart, headaches, or an upset stomach. These may occur in response to external stimuli associated with Christmas such as lots of mess, too much money being spent, feeling resentment or being taken for granted, or having to see someone you would rather avoid. Breathe deeply and step away if you need to. Mitigate against things that may cause you stress through careful planning in advance. Just knowing what your triggers are can help.
  • Get support from your partner. Go over with your partner what makes you feel anxious during this time, so they are cued up on exactly how you’re feeling. Discuss together some ways they could help you on the day. Enjoy some light-hearted relief by having a hilarious code word to say if you can feel your blood pressure rising or as a signal that you need a breather.
  • Empathy often helps. Although it is not your job to fill in the gaps or tolerate difficult behaviour, there may for example be a reason why someone needs to draw attention to themselves. Perhaps they are lonely or struggling in some way or need some validation. Maybe they are just someone with issues and problems too and there is a way to show them compassion without compromising yourself.
  • Beware of psychological games. Being made to feel insecure, constantly criticised or put down and being compared unfavourably to others can be very painful, especially if that person is delightful to everyone else. Sometimes it is worth sitting with someone who we feel in conflict with and finding out what they are thinking or worried about. Other times we just need to walk away from them.
  • Accept help from others to avoid feeling taken for granted. The Christmas period is rarely stress free because we put so much pressure on ourselves that everything has to be perfect. You are not a Christmas elf and can’t click your fingers so that everything is done. Negotiate who is in charge of what, share out the jobs, welcome specific contributions if you feel that will help and show your appreciation. Teamwork is the best way to get things done.
  • Plan for potential meltdowns from children. Young, over-excited children may still be learning how to negotiate their feelings which makes meltdowns all the more common during the busy Christmas period. Plan some activities which will help settle and occupy your children whilst you do some preparations and ask for help from grandparents, aunts or uncles and friends! Playing and laughing together is the best way to celebrate Christmas.
  • Have realistic expectations and look after yourself. Having expectations of a perfect Christmas is unrealistic so practising gratitude can be an excellent antidote to that and maybe just aim for a lovely rather than perfect time. Give yourself some ‘me’ time during what can be a very chaotic period so you can start the new year refreshed. Enjoy walks, a gorgeous bath every night and time with your not-so stressful loved ones to allow you to recharge your batteries and decompress.

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