How to manage conflict at Christmas

Stress levels are higher this year as people come out of COVID lockdowns.

By Professor Jenny Martin

Christmas is a time of family gatherings and celebrations that, unfortunately for many, is also characterised by high levels of stress and anxiety due to family conflict.

Stress levels are higher this year due to coming out of COVID lockdowns. People are not used to socialising in large family gatherings. Some family members may not be vaccinated, so do you include or exclude them? We have also seen increased levels of family violence during lockdowns.

Much of this conflict at Christmas extends from past unresolved disputes and aggressions or micro-aggressions between family and extended family members. A person may dearly want to see some family members in particular, but not others who may be in attendance and are a source of stress, aggravation, and even perhaps fear.

Add the complexity of the many competing decisions that need to be made. For instance, children with partners may be invited to both families for the same meal. Distance might not allow seeing both families on Christmas Day. Do you or don’t you buy gifts, and is this to be coordinated as a Kris Kringle with a set amount to be spent per person? Who decides, and what is the cost limit? Or do you play games such as The Greed of Xmas, where a gift is purchased with no one in particular in mind? Do you set limits on the type of gifts that are acceptable such as eco-friendly, and what is acceptable in terms of cards and gift wrapping? What food do you serve or bring with you, and how do you cater for varied diets?

Also, add excessive drinking and extended time with family that may deteriorate as the day progresses if there are pre-existing tensions.

The answers to the following three questions will assist in determining the most appropriate process and skills to use to manage a conflict situation:

What is the purpose of the interaction?

Is the type of communication that is occurring deemed appropriate to the particular circumstances and setting?

Is the communication voluntary, or do these people need to communicate for a particular purpose?

Power is a central feature of all conflict situations. An analysis and understanding of the exercise of power in relationships is essential for effective conflict management. This may reflect age, gender, socio-economic status and so on.

All conflict is emotional because it involves real and perceived threats to the achievement of individual or group goals. This requires consideration of different personality types and the regulation of emotions. Consideration of the purpose of the relationship and levels of associated intimacy is helpful. The main types of relationships are:

  • acquaintance or business
  • friendship
  • positive intimacy
  • negative intimacy

Acquaintance or business relationships are characterised by formal courtesies with low levels of personal disclosure. Agreements are explicit, with public, structured meetings and high levels of personal privacy.

Friendships are characterised by trust, respect, understanding, increased assumptions and expectations. Increased levels of emotional attachment and personal disclosure occur as more private time is spent together.

Positive intimacy involves affirming assumptions and expectations and implicit agreements. The relationship is informal and characterised by support and cooperation, with intense feelings and emotions. There are high levels of self-disclosure trust, respect and loyalty.

Negative intimacy is the exact opposite of positive intimacy. Although the relationship is still informal and agreements are implicit, the expectations and assumptions are now negative.

Distrust, disloyalty and disrespect feature; confidences are betrayed, often to inflict hurt on the other person. Feelings are intensely competitive rather than cooperative.

Tips for managing Christmas Day family gatherings

  1. Consider setting a time limit on when you arrive and leave.
  2. Do not drink excessively.
  3. Accept emotional responses as legitimate experiences that can be managed rather than as external forces that just happen.
  4. Accept natural feelings as this reduces the fear of the anxiety itself.
  5. Increase self-awareness and self-acceptance to reduce anxiety.
  6. Learning how to relax systematically, both physically and mentally, to reduce anxiety. This might be simple stretching of muscles that tighten when under stress, deep breathing, and positive self-talk. A relaxed person cannot be anxious.
  7. Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness focuses on ‘being in the moment’ and awareness of self. The aim is to develop a calm awareness of what is happening with your body, mind and emotions. Meditation is a main technique, as well as simple relaxation strategies. A relatively easy activity is to focus on three consecutive breaths as a conscious experience of mind and body activity.
  8. For family members who have moved from positive intimacy to negative intimacy, the goal is not to restore positive intimacy but rather to establish more formal business type communications that have lower levels of emotion.
  9. Plan conversation starters and topics and games that are positive and fun. Decide what topics you will choose not to engage with, particularly those that may be personal, triggering and distressing.
  10. Remember, you are in charge of yourself and your own behaviours and responses, and this includes showing love and respect and being with those who are dear to you, whoever they may be. This may include deciding not to engage with Christmas Day festivities and spend time alone, with pets, or with those from cultures that do not celebrate Christmas.
  11. Stay safe and look after yourself.

Jenny Martin is Professor of Social Work and Human Services and is an expert in conflict management. She is the author of Conflict Management (3rd edition 2022).

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