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Know your triggers, and other tips for dealing with family conflict

Vintage family dinner
AP Photo/Dan Grossi
How to raise a glass (and not your voice).
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Bracing oneself for the holidays is practically a tradition unto itself. As Tolstoy observed, “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,”

In the heat of a multigenerational meltdown, it’s easy to feel upset and alienated. But what to do about it? Severing all contact with your family is difficult and can seem overly dramatic—especially when, despite intense conflicts, you believe in the abstract good intentions of your kin.

In order to prepare yourself to process and respond to conflict within your family, you have to train yourself to be nonreactive and self-sufficient if and when tempers fly. Here are three tips from psychologists to help you achieve yuletide nirvana before you even sit down at the dinner table.

1. Understand the patterns of conflict

One key to approaching a family gathering is to acknowledge that while fights with loved ones can feel unprecedented and deeply personal, they are often quite formulaic. Being aware of common patterns can help you hone strategies to better cope with them.

Throughout his clinical-training process, applied psychologist and author of the upcoming book Resolve: Negotiating Life’s Conflicts with Greater Confidence, Dr. Hal Movius spent thousands of hours listening to people fight—with their partners, their families, and themselves. “There’s research showing that couples, at least, tend to fall into fairly predictable traps when dealing with conflict,” he says. “The most common is that one person starts with a criticism; the other responds by being defensive or counter-criticizing, the first person then renews the criticism or becomes defensive.”

Movius adds that it’s especially difficult to keep cool when we’re tired, unsupported, and financially strained—which, come the holidays, is practically the status quo. When everyone is starting off on thin ice, fights can have middling triggers—someone was interrupted, or slighted, or ate all the peppermint bark. This can then spark a quarrel about an unrelated but much-larger matter such as competition, power, or favoritism. These battles frequently hark back to childhood and familial wars fought by previous generations; though they seem like they came out of nowhere, they’re actually deeply rooted in the past.

By understanding that the manner in which conflict escalates is generally predictable, we can learn to replace kneejerk emotional responses with more tempered thoughts.

“It is possible to build behavioral confidence in negotiating conflicts through preparation, good process, and practice,” Movius says. He also suggests changing your annual routine to curb dread. “Consider making plans that get the family out of the house and having a new experience together,” he says. “Families can get stuck in ruts, doing what they have always done, only to (again) find it unfulfilling. Your new favorite family tradition might be the one you invent.”

2. Be resilient when faced with challenges

Does your family’s unhealthy dynamic feel beyond your capacity to repair this year? If you’ve turned your holiday strategy to one of self-preservation, take heart in the findings of American developmental psychologist Emmy Werner. Werner discovered a key, cultivatable personality trait that allows some individuals with difficult families to manage better than others: resilience.

In the mid-1950s, Warner began a 32-year-long study during which she observed the effects of stress on a group of 700 people, from in-utero to adulthood. She hoped to understand why some people suffer when exposed to hardships like poverty, parental mental illness, and familial discord, while others seem to flourish despite their circumstances.

The results of her work formed the basis for our modern understanding of resilience. Werner wrote that though not necessarily gifted, resilient youth were able to use “whatever skills they had effectively” to mature into “competent, confident, and caring young adults.” They also displayed what psychologists call an “internal locus of control,” which is a knack for seeing opportunities rather than dead ends. Put simply, resilient people take responsibility for their own destinies—and are really good at making lemonade from lemons.

3. Train your optimism

Fortunately, it is possible to train yourself to be more resilient when it comes to family interactions. Positive-psychology researcher Martin Seligman has spent years studying “learned helplessness,” which is the tendency to become passive when faced with overwhelming problems, including literal torture. He suggests reframing experiences in order to “unlearn” bad associations.

For example, it helps to think of issues as external rather than internal (“This isn’t my fault”), narrow rather than all-encompassing (“This one bad thing isn’t an indication that the bigger picture is flawed”), and transient rather than inescapable (“I can change this situation—it’s not fixed”). You can’t control your family’s behavior, but you can work to keep your own state of mind as proactive and positive as possible in the face of frustrating circumstances.

Families can act like petri dishes for the most virulent strains of interpersonal conflict, and negativity is certainly contagious. If overwhelming incidents arise, take a walk, phone a friend, and importantly, don’t be discouraged. Once you’ve committed to a gathering, it’s hardly productive to abandon all hope—after all, what are Christmas miracles for if not to subvert expectations for the most tiresome time of the year?

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