People often expect that their family gatherings will be cordial and blissful during the holidays, hoping to get through dinner drama-free and revel in feelings of love and safety. However, differing views, toxic behaviors, and strained relationships can fuel conflict between relatives. Perhaps it is unrealistic to think the holidays will be picture perfect, but there are ways you can navigate some of the stress to reduce conflict and start to build stronger relationships.

Jennifer Watts, counsellor and owner of Living Well, a counselling practice in Calgary, says it’s understandable that people have an unrealistic expectation of how their families will behave during the festive season.  She states that family members are “supposed to be the safe place that we can share and love freely.”

However, this isn’t always the reality. The truth is that not all of us get along with our families; our relationships with them can be tense and toxic, making conversations at family dinners difficult to have. Some of us might have a parent with an unhealthy ratio of rum to eggnog, who will polish off the bottle before appetizers are served. Or maybe the dinner table feels more like a firing squad with an uncle’s loaded questions about our sexualities, gender identities or marital status (laced with homophobic undertones).

“Sometimes just […] surviving the get-together is maybe all you can do,especially if you’re part of a vulnerable community.”

– Psychologist Carolyn ClaireCarolyn Claire, a registered psychologist who runs her own practice, says arguments around the dinner table has become a growing issue for families in recent years. 

“I think it’s way more common that families are having really heated, angry, maybe even hateful conversations that are pretty distressing to lots of people.”

While this may be a reality for many families, both Watts and Claire say it doesn’t have to be. The Calgary Journal spoke to the counsellor and psychologist about how to reduce conflict and build stronger relationships with our families over the holidays.

Reality, lists and boundaries

To set yourself up for success, Watts explains we need to clarify our expectations by reflecting on what we really want from our family, while being realistic. 

“We want unconditional love but maybe their love is really conditional. So, going in with reasonable expectations of what they can provide [is important].”

If conversations are still consistently taking a heated turn, one option is to avoid taboo topics altogether. Watts suggests making a list of safe topics and questions ahead of time so that you don’t get stressed and freeze if things go sour. 

She explains, “at least it’s keeping us off of things that we really strongly disagree on and it allows us to bond and just have a conversation.”

But sometimes these types of lists don’t work. When the conversation takes a wrong turn, and we don’t want to be silent or fuel another hour-long debate, we should create a boundary that is still consistent with our values and ethics. 

Claire says, “I might just say something like, ‘You know, that really isn’t my experience and I don’t agree with what you’re saying.’ And then kind of using that as a broken record.” 

By repeating your statement but also not arguing further, this will allow you to stay true to your beliefs and vocalize that you don’t agree with something being said.

Have open conversations

The other alternative, Claire says, would be offering to talk about the issue later. She suggests saying something like, “I would be really open to talking to you further about this some time. Maybe we could go for coffee — but I’m not comfortable doing that tonight. You know, ‘Mom is really upset with all the conflict,’ or, ‘There’s too much alcohol involved; let’s meet for coffee, discuss this and see if we can understand each other’s viewpoint.’”

While you’re not obligated to have these conversations, it could be an opportunity for a relative to understand your perspective. If you shut down their curiosity, this could be the first and last chance to expand their ideas and thinking.

“Ultimately, there’s so much dissension in our world and the only way we’re going to move forward is by having dialogue,” says Claire. While it may be difficult, encouraging learning through open conversations is important.

Encourage open conversations and learning

However, for many vulnerable people, such as individuals in the LGBTQ community or racial minorities, having these conversations may not be safe. 

“Sometimes just surviving, just surviving the get-together, is maybe all you can do, especially if you’re part of a vulnerable community,” says Claire. 

“I don’t think that it should fall on your shoulders to be the one who’s challenging everything.”

Therefore, it’s important for others to help push the barriers of thinking, standing up to bigotry and creating a safe space for those vulnerable people. This opens up the opportunity to learn and hear each other out in a productive way. 

“It’s just usually so much more contained and respectful,” says Claire.

By not engaging in futile conflict, but also encouraging informative conversation in an appropriate manner, we can begin to hear each other’s experiences and viewpoints and ultimately build stronger relationships. 

Grow with each other and change

At the end of the day, one of the only things we can control is how we grow and change. “Whatever change you would want to see from people, try to be that change first,” explains Watts.

Watts describes relationships as a system. When we start to shift directions through our attitudes and behaviors, the whole system starts to change and adapt because it can no longer function the way that it once did.

One shift in your behavior might be a catalyst to better interactions, relationships and holidays this season.

Overall, progress is progress, and maybe by engaging in one less argument or by voicing your opinion in a non-argumentative way, you can get through the holidays feeling empowered and stronger within your family conversations and dynamics.

Editors Note: This story is part of the Calgary Journal’s November-December print issue. You can find a digital version here, or grab a copy at news stands across the city.

Editor: Mackenzie Gellner |

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