“The More We Get Together…” Managing Family Conflict over the Holidays

“I’m dreading the holidays. It’s always so stressful. Everyone just pretends its fine, but, there are always snide comments. Once people start drinking it all goes downhill from there. I wish we could just skip it this year.

The standard advice for avoiding conflict during family get togethers is  to avoid discussions about religion or politics, but it’s not always that simple.

Many people joke about disowning their families but often there are mixed feelings at play. If there weren’t our interactions would be simple. We would either ditch them all together or not have anything to complain about. The fact that we care for each other and want to be closer,  despite our differences and disagreements means that have three options. We can ignore the conflict and our own discomfort, pretending everything is fine, while our internal tension builds. OR we stew on our frustrations and then they erupt when least expected sometimes turing a family event into an all out brawl, OR we get down to work figuring out how to resolve the conflict in a way that maintains our self respect and the relationship. There are many reasons for tension and conflict within families. Here are a few thoughts about how to approach some of them:

Conflict due to biases and prejudices

“My brother won’t talk to me anymore since he found out I was gay. He just avoids eye contact. We used to be close. I’m not longer invited to my nieces and nephews birthday parties.“

“My in-laws make me feel uncomfortable. I don’t think they mean to be racist but there are always these comments. They try to come across as interested but it’s so patronizing.”

“My parents don’t like my new boyfriend. They liked my ex-husband and are always talking about how we might make things work. They can’t seem to move on and it makes things really uncomfortable. I wish they would just accept that this is the way things are and that my boyfriend is a perfectly find person if they would just get to know him. The kids like him, that’s all that matters”

Families are filled with humans and humans are diverse. Sometimes families align themselves very strongly with particular world views, ideals or values. These may be overtly communicated or unspoken but known by all. When individual members do not conform to these values, ideals or worldviews, they risk being ostrasized , fearing rejection or actually being rejected. This can be incredibly painful for those who feel unaccepted.


We can’t make people change but we can decide what kind of behavior we are willing to put up with.

When deciding whether or not to address the issue directly:

  • Consider the pros and cons of doing so. What are the costs of addressing it, especially if the discussion does not go well. What are the cost (to you and to others, particularly in the long run) of not addressing it.
  • Consider also, the ones observing. It could be there are other family members who have had similar experiences to you or who are dealing with similar issues and by bringing it out in the open, they might feel more supported or feel free to show support to you.

If you do decide to bring up the issue:

  • Try do it before the event instead of waiting for things to blow.
  • Plan ahead for what you want to say, try to be specific and use specific examples.
  • Think about how you want them to change and try to articulate this clearly and concretely.

You may not be able to change opinions or feeling but you can ask for changes in the way they talk to you or about people you care about. See How to Start a Good Fight for more ideas about having important conversations.

Inappropriate current or past behavior

Inappropriate behavior is often is minimized, overlooked or outright denied within families. “Oh that’s just Uncle Joe, he doesn’t mean anything by it.” But for those at the receiving end of it, it can feel violating.

When you find yourself avoiding certain people at a family event, think about what it is about them that makes you uncomfortable.

Did something happen in the past, something they said or did which has never been addressed? Maybe family members are even aware but minimize it saying, “That was a long time ago, and he was drunk, you just need to get over that.”

Are they crossing physical boundaries, with unwanted touches? It could be things like hugs or a hand on the back which makes you uncomfortable.

Are there comments that make you uncomfortable? “Any guys would be thrilled to get into your pants. Hell, if I was 20 years younger I’d be after you in a second!” You might think, “Maybe I’m reading into this too much, or being too sensitive.” Other family members may tell you this or say, “Can’t you take a joke?”

Or maybe it’s just the way they look at you.

You don’t have to justify feeling uncomfortable. You can decide for yourself if your concerns are unwarranted, but the fact that you have them means that…

…you have the right to say no to things that you find uncomfortable that involve you and your body, not matter what it is.

Confrontation in these situations is often awkward and can be difficult where there is a perceived or real power imbalance, i.e. young girl confronting older uncle, etc.

Ways to confront:

  • If you are unsure of yourself and the validity of your concerns, find someone you trust to share your thoughts with. Someone who is supportive of you and whom you know wants the best for you.
  • If you are uncomfortable confronting the person doing this, find someone who is willing to talk to the person you are uncomfortable with, for you. Be sure you let them know what you want communicated. It can be as simple as “Linda doesn’t feel comfortable being hugged.” OR, they might choose to address the situation in a less formal way, even humorous way, maybe even in the moment, “Hey George! Keep your hands to yourself! “ OR “She doesn’t need your ‘relationship’ advice…” Obviously it would depend on the type of person this is and how they respond to various types of confrontation.
  • More assertive or even aggressive confrontation might be appropriate depending on the situation. Do you need to call this person out in front of others? “Please don’t touch my leg again.” “I’ve asked you once, if you do that again, I will…. (Talk to someone else; revoke future invitations to events; make a scene; report to authorities…)” You fill in the blanks. You are entitled to respectful treatment from people around you. Even family.

If you decide not to confront this person:

  • Consider safety. Is it worth going to an event with that person if you are feeling unsafe? Can you advise others of the situation to see if they have suggestion? Is there a way to avoid them all together? Can you bring someone along with whom you feel safe or ask someone else to be available to help out if you need assistance getting out of a situation. If things get worse after alcohol consumption, consider planning an early exit or suggesting a dry event.
  • Another thing to consider is who else might be at risk of being harassed by this person? Is there someone else who can take action to ensure this does not happen. Depending on the situation consider if it would

If you have never experienced anything like this:

  • Keep your eyes open for situations that might be felt as uncomfortable to other family members. Don’t assume they want you to intervene but if you feel comfortable, you might say something to those whose behavior might make others uncomfortable. You might do this in a light humorous way or you may take them aside and say something like, “not everyone is okay with ___ just FYI, you might want to check first if they’re okay with it.” 
  • You might also want to try an experiment by imagining how others might perceive your own words or actions. Don’t over think it, but just check if there’s anything that you’ve said or done that you are suddenly unsure of.
  • Always remember to ask before touching, no matter what the relationship or age of the other person, “can I give you a hug?” “Do you want a hand up?’” etc.
  • If you are male be particularly aware of the complex relationships that girls and women or all ages have with their bodies and appearance before commenting on them in any way.
  • Assume diversity. Speak as if someone from a diverse background, whether it is a different ethnicity from you or a different sexual orientation from you were in the room and you cared about them a lot and wanted to show your support of them. There is a good chance that this could be true. Think also about how you would want others to talk about someone you loved that belonged to one of these groups and talk in this way.

Unresolved previous conflict

“It was 10 years ago already, but we just can’t seem to move past this. I just don’t know if I can ever trust her again. It sucks cause our kids are the same age and I don’t want to deprive them of connection with their cousins. This isn’t their fault. “

having tea

Perhaps the issue is an old unresolved conflict. Once again, the decision about whether to bring up the issue to try to resolve it is based on how much this issue is getting in the way of having a pleasant time together both for yourself and for others, how important the relationship is to you and your perception of their ability to manage or resolve conflict.

If you decide to have a conversation with this person do some planning. You might check out:

How to start a good fight

I’m Sorry”- 8 Steps to a Good Apology

 Forgiveness- a dirty word?

If you decide not to confront:

  • Think about what you need to do to move forward in these contexts. You might need to plan to take some space, at time.  You could try focusing on what you have in common and agree on these days and build your relationship on these things.
  • If you are wanting a closer relationship but don’t think the previous issue can be resolved, you might think of things you can do together that doesn’t involve as much discussion, such as going to a movie, going skiing, working on a project, dropping kids off to play, etc.

Personality Clashes

“She just gets on my nerves. Always so controlling and wanting to know all the details about everything. She can’t let anyone else have a conversation without knowing what it’s about. It’s maddening!”

Think about you’re the variety of personalities in the world that are neither good nor bad, right nor wrong. Some people are really outgoing and talk a lot about themselves. This might be their way of inviting information about you. They might feel that when they share, you’ll feel more comfortable sharing. Others like to know what is happening next so they can plan and become uncomfortable if they can’t see what’s coming. This can come across as controlling. Others need a lot of space and feel uncomfortable with too many personal questions. The variations are endless.

Consider how the behavior is impacting you and if it is actually crossing specific boundaries.

If so, you may need to think about how to communicate boundaries more clearly See Where Do I Draw the Line?

Also consider your own reactions to others and how these may complicate your interactions with others. See When YOU are the Volcano – 7 Ways to Care for Yourself

If it is nothing overtly imposing, you might find you just need to practice giving the benefit of the doubt.

  • Try to imagine how the other person’s behavior or words could be coming from a place of good intentions.
  • Try empathy. Maybe they are insecure and looking for connection with you. Maybe they have gone through a hard time and are not coping well. Maybe you only see them in events where they are the least comfortable. Maybe they have experienced inappropriate behavior from others or felt cut off from the family due to their identities which don’t’ conform with the family ideals, values or worldview. If you’ve never asked them about themselves, try it out.

Check out The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Don Richard Riso & Russ Hudson* to learn more about your own personality and others personalities. You might choose to explore this with the person you are struggling with.


There are many reasons for family conflict, these are just a few. Hopefully this helps a bit.  Peace to you this holiday season!

*Please note: I have signed on as an affiliate sales person for McNally Robinson which means that if you click on the above link, and decide to purchase the book I’ve recommended, I will receive an affiliate’s fee. I only recommend books I have read and believe to be worth recommending.


4 thoughts on ““The More We Get Together…” Managing Family Conflict over the Holidays

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