Psychotherapist Tells Us How To Deal With Family Disagreements Over The Holidays

We get it. Heading home for the holidays can give us treasured time with our loved ones we'll hold on to for the rest of our lives. But other times it can also be a pretty difficult experience. Tensions can be particularly high around the holidays as families gather in close quarters amid the stresses of finding the perfect gifts and trying not to go bankrupt in the process. Not to mention all the polarizing events going on in the world right now, from politics to wars. All that can make for some, well, tough conversations and disagreements. "While the holidays are often marketed as a very happy time to gather with family, this is not always the case. There are multiple challenges that families can face, and these challenges may be amplified around the holiday season where there is pressure to be 'happy,'" Leanna Stockard, licensed marriage and family therapist at LifeStance Health, explained to CBS News. And you're certainly not alone if your family's holidays descend into dispute galore. A 2019 survey conducted by Motel 6 found that as many as two in five Americans who planned to stay with family for the holidays described the holidays as stressful. 

But how do you navigate those difficult family disagreements without losing your cool or escalating an issue beyond where it needs to go? Well, we here at Women.com went to Dr. Courtney Tracy, a licensed psychotherapist, for some answers.

Learn how to control your own reaction

It's a bit of a cliché, but it's true. Unfortunately, we can't control anyone else's reaction to anything — but we can control our own. And, according to Dr. Courtney Tracy, learning how to control the way that we react to disagreements and tough family situations is the best thing we can do for ourselves and those around us this holiday season. "This is a must," Dr. Tracy told us. But we know controlling your reaction is easier said than done, especially when tensions are high, so Dr. Tracy gave us a few tips. "Take deep breaths, have an exit strategy, and know that you can step away anytime and ease yourself," she suggested. "You don't have to win or even participate in the battle that's begun between family opinions. Control what you can, and leave the rest for someone else to deal with."

It may help to learn how to properly control your reaction by being more in tune with your triggers. "I encourage you to be very honest with yourself about your triggers and how you react to them. Even if this approach feels harsh initially, it will help you learn to be more compassionate with yourself," relationship expert Margaret Paul, Ph.D., told MBGHealth. "Thinking honesty about your triggers is the only way to eventually heal them."

Set boundaries and seek out an ally to help

Boundaries are there for a reason, and there's nothing wrong with setting them to ensure you can enjoy happy gatherings with your family. Dr. Courtney Tracy recommended the best way to keep disagreements from escalating is to first acknowledge the other person's perspective situation, then set your boundaries and let them know. You could even try making your boundaries clear before a family gathering. "Boundaries can be physical, emotional, (or) mental, and they can be set ahead of time or in the moment with your family members," Leanna Stockard told CBS News. This could be something as simple as telling them you just don't want to speak about that issue, Dr. Tracy shared, to which Stockard agreed. "It is more than okay to decide that you do not want to engage in political discussions at family gatherings and ask your family members to respect your decision ahead of time," Stockard said.

The next step after setting your boundaries is to check in with yourself and regulate your emotions. Dr. Tracy explained if you find you're getting a little resentful or pent-up with anger, try to get support from someone else around you who may be able to diffuse the situation. Stockard added, "[Talk] to a family member that you trust to help you navigate through your difficulties, and have an ally in the moment who can help reiterate that your boundaries deserve to be respected."

Know it's okay step away from a disagreement

If you tried the above tips to try to prevent a disagreement from escalating but you can feel it only getting worse, know you are allowed to end it and start speaking to someone else, or step outside to get some fresh air and calm down. "Don't be afraid to step away from the conversation," Dr. Courtney Tracy told us, noting it should be the last step after you've tried controlling your reaction. To prevent yourself from stonewalling your loved ones though, it may be a good idea to communicate why you need to step away for a few moments to calm down, as communication is still key in these situations.

But if you think just moving away from the conversation for a while isn't going to help, Dr. Tracy even noted that you can go as far as to leave a party or situation if it's what you need. "It's absolutely appropriate to do whatever needs to be done to ensure the environment is value-based and like-minded. If there's danger or overwhelm, a break can be important," she shared. "It's not overly dramatic to leave your holiday party due to conflict."

Do some planning before a disagreement can occur

A lot of the time when it comes to spending the holidays with family, you have a good idea about who you'll be spending time with and which family members are particularly triggering for you. So it's a good idea before you step into the holiday get-together(s) to work out how best to navigate being around certain people. Dr. Courtney Tracy recommended to us, "Plan how you're going to care for yourself if drama arises. We can usually expect it from specific people, so don't be caught off-guard this year!" You may want to decide beforehand which topics you're willing to discuss and which you aren't, as well as practice how you're going to (politely) make your boundaries clear if you can feel a conversation going south.

Equally, not having too high expectations for your family members may also be the way to avoid things escalating. "[Say to yourself] 'I'm going to expect my family members to behave the way that they always do. I'm not going to expect them to be different this week, just because it's the holidays,'" licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of online support platform Calling Home, Whitney Goodman, told CBS News. "When I accept that I can prepare accurately for what's going to happen. When people are able to get those expectations out of the way, it leads to a lot less disappointment and you can really control the outcome a lot better."

Recognize when old patterns are

All too often, family disagreements can form because of the same pattern. Even if the arguments themselves aren't the same, very often people can take on the same roles within them. "It's called the 'drama triangle,' the source of most fights in families, and we tend to take turns playing the different parts," Kimberly Key, PhD., author of "Ten Keys to Staying Empowered in a Power Struggle," told First For Women.

To keep the drama triangle at bay, Key recommended analyzing the situation you're in as best you can so you can see when old patterns are arising and make a conscious effort not to engage in it. "Just take a moment to step back and recognize if you're falling into this pattern. If you find that you are, bring compassion to yourself and to your family by reminding yourself that we all repeat familiar cycles," Key explained. She then suggested turning the conversation to something less likely to cause a disagreement if you can feel tensions rising. "Pivot away from this dynamic using your inborn superpower: curiosity. Curiosity instantly broadens our perspective and invites people to lower their guard," she said. That could mean asking someone a question you've never asked them before (you may choose to ask about someone's career, hobbies, or vacations). "This way, when our buttons are pushed, we can calm down more quickly and respond rationally," Key added.