How to Prevent and Resolve Family Holiday Conflicts

12/18/2013 01:39 pm ET | Updated Feb 17, 2014

Keep the Holidays Harmonious

Holidays, as much as they're supposed to be full of warmth and laughter with friends and family, have the potential for disaster. Because we expect so much, and are often overtired and overstressed, emotions and tensions tend to run high by the time family gets together. In this atmosphere, even the most innocent comment or minor infraction can open old wounds or cause major new battles.

Here are the two most important things you can do to preserve family harmony during the holidays - plan and understand. Establishing some simple ground-rules beforehand helps prevent misunderstandings. When the family is together and imperfect behavior threatens to strain relations, a little tact and understanding can go a long way.

Set the Tone by Phone
Many holiday conflicts with relatives may be avoided by a telephone conversation prior to their visit. These discussions should be loving, empathetic and free from warnings, anger, or criticism. Your conversation might include:

A discussion of appropriate and not overly expensive gifts for your children.
An explanation of how you discipline your children and how your kids will respond if your relatives attempt to discipline them differently.
How you are looking forward to their being an important part of your holiday celebrations.
The schedule of your holiday events and rituals.
An agreement that you all will refrain from arguments and criticizing one another, especially if there are children present.
Mentioning any changes or elimination of longstanding holiday traditions that might disappoint them or cause them to feel rejected.

Don't Overreact
When family holiday incidents do arise, take a deep breath and shift into conflict resolution mode with approaches like these:

Conflict: Your mother has taken away a cookie from your five-year-old son, saying, "You can't eat that cookie now. It's too close to supper and it will spoil your appetite." Your son has withdrawn to a corner of the room and is bordering on tears.

Resolution: You put your arm around your mother and explain to her that you have relaxed your eating rules for your kids during the holidays: "Mom, we're letting the kids have a few sweet treats in between meals during the next few days. I'll go tell Tim you hadn't heard about our rule change. After that, maybe you could ask him to show you his seashell collection. He's been looking forward to showing it to you."

Conflict: On Christmas Eve, you say to all your family, "Okay, time for everyone to open up one present." Your parents grimace and your dad says, "What's this all about? It's not even Christmas and we're opening up presents? We never did that when you were growing up."

Resolution: "Mom, Dad, this year we've started a new tradition where everyone gets to open up one gift on Christmas Eve. So, we've kept most of the old traditions that we had growing up, like lighting up the tree while we all sang 'Silent Night,' and we've added a few new ones. Here's your Christmas Eve present. By the way, which one of you is going to light up the tree tonight?"

Conflict: Your Uncle Lou and your Aunt Harriet are rather tipsy from too many eggnogs and are arguing yet again about who ran the family business into bankruptcy: "Lou, I told you that you should never have hired anyone outside the family to do the books. I should have done the accounting. And another thing..."

Resolution: You quietly ask Uncle Lou and Aunt Harriet to join you in another room. "You know, when you were arguing just now I noticed that some of the little kids looked scared. Your kids looked embarrassed. You two can always get into a good fight about this subject. But now is not the time, is it?" Then switch gears: "I can remember when we were kids and you two used to do that hilarious Abbott-and-Costello comedy routine, 'Who's On First'. How about making us all laugh by doing it now? This party could use a little livening up."

Families and holidays are often less-than-perfect, but you can make the most of your holiday times together by planning ahead, accentuating the positive, and downplaying any little incidents that may have in the past caused family strife. By doing so, a pleasant, memorable time has a much better chance of being enjoyed by all.