The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal


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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 | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

According to Statistics Canada, Alberta produces the most waste per person than anywhere else in the country, at almost 1,000 kg per year. But, during and after the holidays, there is a 50 to 75 per cent increase in the amount of materials received at Calgary’s waste and recycling facilities. However, there are some simple ways to give less to the landfill during the season of giving. 

Eco-friendly holiday gift swaps

“I know it sounds super cheesy, but hear me out,” says Lea Luciano from Plastic Free YYC. “Some people value quality time more than the act of gift-giving. I personally prefer spending quality time, or doing something together, rather than buying a gift for someone that they may or may not use. 

She adds, “For your mom, you can do a cooking class together. For dad, you can go hiking. For your significant other, do an activity of his/her choice that you wouldn’t normally do.” 

Get creative and make some DIY self-care products

For those who still enjoy giving physical gifts, making homemade self-care products is the way to go. 

“If you happen to be creative, this is a perfect project for you to do. There are a lot of things you can make such as candles, soaps and even bath bombs,” says Luciano. 

“With the amazing technology we have nowadays, you can easily Google how-tos and tutorials on how to make candles. Check out your local bulk stores or refillery for materials.” 

Prepare baked goods

If spending time in the kitchen is your jam, use your skills to find some fun, festive recipes and prepare a batch of holiday goodies to gift. And don’t be afraid to get creative with cheap and sustainable wrapping options.

“Why not give your best friend who has a sweet tooth a tray of cookies?” says Luciano. “The thrift store also has [a] great selection of plates, trays and mason jars so you can package your treats nicely.”

Give second-hand a chance

While you’re thrifting for some greener wrapping options, be sure to scope out some previously loved holiday decorations too. 

“I know some people are iffy about buying other secondhand items,” But, she adds, “Holiday decor is expensive and most of the time, they are made out of plastic. Some people get rid of their decorations after one use and they often end up in thrift stores,” where they could become a potential gift. 

It’s a wrap!

A greener way, than plastic bows and paper wrapping, to wrap your gifts is to use furoshiki, suggests Luciano.

“[Furoshiki is] the Japanese art of using fabric or cloth to wrap gifts. You can use old pillowcases, old shirts or thrifted scarves to wrap up your presents,” explains Luciano.

If you still want to use traditional wrapping, consider reusing instead of newly purchased. 

“Save all your gifted tissue paper and bags from previous gifts and celebrations to re-gift this season,” she explains.

Shop local

“If you are planning to buy gifts, we encourage you to shop local. It uses less energy because they don’t have to transport items so far and you are supporting local vendors/artists,” says Luciano. 

The Bridgeland Farmers’ Market, Calgary Farmers’ Market, the Spruce Meadows International Christmas Market and Calgary Night Markets are some local shopping options to choose from. You can even support local artists from the Alberta University of the Arts at one of their infamous pie and plate sales! 

Give the gift that keeps on giving (back to the earth)

Give gifts that will help others become more environmentally conscious; shop for items like beeswax wraps for leftovers, reusable straws or steel razors. 

“If you have a friend or family member who is interested in being waste-free, give them items that would encourage them to use less plastic such as a reusable mug/bottle, bamboo cutlery set they can bring for their packed lunch, reusable straws, etc.,” says Luciano. This way they can continue their eco-friendly ways all year long!

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 | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

With a lifelong desire to be artists, Nikki Smith and Janelle Reithmeier jumped at the opportunity to create a stylized, preference-focused tattoo parlour they both had in mind, opening Electric Odyssey almost 5 years ago.