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Family Rifts (Not Politics) Cause the Most Holiday Tension, Says Survey — Here’s How To Mend Them

As much as we might like to ban any political talk at the dinner table, it may not be the true culprit.

The holidays should be a time of relaxation and love. But all too often, we spend them feeling stressed as we clean, cook, and worry about family rifts. It’s not easy to host a wide variety of personalities under one roof, especially when the political climate is so combative. However: As much as we might like to ban any political talk at the dinner table, it may not be the true culprit. In fact, a recent survey says that family rifts are the real root of holiday tension.

A Survey on Holiday Stress

In a 2022 survey by JustAnswer (an online question-and-answer service that connects users with all kinds of experts), 1,169 US adults weighed in on holiday tension. More than half of respondents (51 percent) said that they have at least one family member who is likely to stir up drama. And the number one cause of drama — according to 15 percent of respondents — was lingering or unresolved family issues. “Certain abrasive personalities” was number two, and “clashing beliefs or values” was number three. Politics and alcohol consumption tied for fourth place.

Of course, this was a very small sample size, which doesn’t represent the entire population. Also, most respondents (27 percent) reported that they don’t experience any drama at holiday gatherings.

Still, these findings could help you focus your energy on the root of those family issues. “Families come together with the best of intentions — to share the joy and connection that holidays offer — but often that is the time when unresolved issues come to light,” says Jennifer Kelman, JustAnswer mental health expert and licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Below, Kelman answers questions about common holiday dilemmas, how to address tension before they start, and ways to mitigate drama during get togethers.

Meet our expert.

Jennifer Kelman is a mental health expert on JustAnswer, where she has provided online support to those in need since 2012. In addition to her work on JustAnswer, Kelman has been a Licensed Clinical Social Worker for more than 30 years and maintains a private practice specializing in relationships, parenting, and children’s mental health issues.

Why do the holidays stir up unresolved family issues?

“Holidays are a time of cheer but also a time fraught with pressure. While it is all supposed to be free and easy, sometimes, the family stress can be a bit too much, and the old, toxic ways of relating [to one another] become apparent. Any little thing may trigger family members to fall into familiar roles and play out the dynamics within the family. Families may engage in scapegoating, gossiping, putting one another down, and may not even be aware [that they’re doing it]. Bottom line? Families fall back into familiar patterns when things feel stressful.”

Should you talk to that family member before you see each other during the holidays?

“If things feel a bit uneasy or there has been friction in the past, it may be good to reach out beforehand. It could help both parties clear the air and come to a place of understanding, so that things can go as smoothly as possible before seeing one another. Perhaps you decide to move forward in a new and fresh way without rehashing old wounds. Communication is always key, so be gentle and kind. That’s always a great way to enter into any communication.”

What’s the best way to calm down drama at a party?

“Making light of things may not be the most helpful, but letting loose with rage isn’t the way to go, either. Here’s what I suggest: Be clear of your boundaries around what things you will engage in and stay true to what works for you.

“For example, if you know the family regularly engages in gossip and puts others down, steer clear of those topics. If need be, remove yourself from the table or the room. If you are questioned about it, say, ‘I feel uncomfortable when the conversations turn toward putting other people down. I’d prefer to keep out of that, but I’m happy to join in other wonderful conversations.’ Boundaries are key. 

“Lastly, while it may feel like a good idea to pull someone aside and let them know how you feel, it might not be the best time. It could be met with denial of the behavior, gaslighting, and aggression.”

How can you keep an argument from becoming a fight?

“It is better to let others know how you feel by using ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ statements. ‘I’ statements are usually more helpful because the focus remains on how you are feeling, rather than casting blame on others. ‘I feel’ will always be heard better than ‘you are so mean to others.’ For example, you might say, ‘I feel uneasy and sad when we talk about others, so I prefer to take a breather when that takes place.'”

Any other tips on reducing stress during a holiday party?

“Keep your expectations in line with what you know to be true of your family. Go into the event without forcing them to be and act the way you want them to be. If you enter into the holiday event without an expectation of who they should be, then you might find yourself enjoying the event and moving through it with ease. 

“A little bit of armor to get through the tough moments is always helpful. Keep in mind that little digs directed at you don’t always need to be attended to. And finally, keep the boundaries firm around what works for you. Give yourself some breathing room if things feel tense.”

Need more advice? Check out these six ways to mend a family rift, and these expert tips for reaching out to estranged family members.

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