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When family conflicts at the holiday table seem inevitable, how can you react? (Anna Vignet/KQED)

How to Handle Hard Conversations With Family This Holiday Season

How to Handle Hard Conversations With Family This Holiday Season

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Disagreement can be one of the hardest things to prepare for when visiting with loved ones — especially during intense and polarizing political climates.

But there are ways to make the experience a little smoother, said family therapists, who shared their ideas with KQED for what to do when conversations around the dinner table go awry.

“I see this in my practice all the time,” said Dr. Sarah Crouch, a clinical psychologist and director of San Francisco’s Whole Family Therapy Program. “It’s super common for families that everyone in a family may have a different opinion from another family member. And it is distressing.”

Marriage and family therapist Tiffany Totah said that at this time of year, existing family tensions can start to bubble.

“As therapists, we help our clients gear up for family holidays even without any external political situations,” said Totah, who also runs group therapy circles for Bay Area Arab communities. “Even though we are in a very difficult time for many communities right now, families can have challenges around the holidays for a lot of reasons.”

Why family conflict can cut so deep

Despite how ubiquitous family fights may be, they can feel isolating in the moment they occur.

Crouch said that’s because, from a very young age, we develop deep emotional connections to our caregivers as a means of survival. When friction develops — be it over current events, family trauma or something entirely different — it can threaten our innate sense of security and safety.

“Staying emotionally connected to our family members is actually a very critical human need that we have,” Crouch said. “If intense family discussions lead to disconnection, people storming away from the table, that is truly distressing and makes people want to avoid it.”

Events unfolding around the 2023 holidays may pose specific challenges, like heated arguments across generations about the Israel-Hamas war or the looming 2024 election in the United States. But while differences in ideology or opinion often spark clashes between family members, experts who spoke to KQED about these types of arguments stressed that conversations are more likely to spiral when individuals feel their beliefs — and their identity — are consequently being rejected by their family.

Of course, Crouch said, there is always the option not to engage, and no one should be obligated to put themselves in a situation that could be harmful or even dangerous. (To that end, check out KQED’s 2020 guide to diplomatically declining a family visit over the holidays.)

For those who want to spend time with loved ones but have trepidations about doing so, we’ve gathered support and guidance from Bay Area family therapists on getting through the holiday season when conflict seems imminent.

Prepare yourself for potential disagreement

Allen Choi, a therapist with the East Bay Center for Teen and Family Therapy, said the first place to start when emotionally preparing for a difficult visit home is to check in with yourself.

“We can’t control other people. So the first step is knowing yourself and understanding patterns within you,” Choi said.

Some questions to reflect on before your visit could include:

  • What is the pattern happening?
  • When someone disagrees with me, how uncomfortable do I feel?
  • What about disagreement with this person upsets me? Why do I want them to agree?
  • How well am I listening when conflict arises?

The second step, Choi said, is knowing your limits and when to disengage.

“It’s okay to be honest if you can’t handle a conversation,” Choi said. “Draw a boundary for yourself. You can take a step back. There are a lot of other ways to connect with family.”

Some families and cultures have stronger obligations to be present at gatherings, Totah said. To that end, allowing permission to take a break or miss an event is an important way to prepare.

“I always start with ‘Where are you at, and what is your capacity for managing the intensity,’” Totah recommended.

“More often than not, it’s about helping clients get permission to say, ‘You know, I think I’m going to sit this one out.’ Or ‘I’ll do this one, but maybe not the next.’”

Recognize when facts alone won’t help — and try another tack

Fights within families are often highly emotionally charged. That doesn’t mean facts don’t matter — they certainly do.

But coming to a family gathering armed with a list of talking points is more likely to put people on the defensive than foster fruitful conversation, let alone get someone to agree with you, Crouch said.

When it’s possible, Choi recommends offering an olive branch of sorts. Most importantly, listen with curiosity in those difficult conversations and try to intake the information by showing what you have heard to help slow escalation and show intentions — even if there’s disagreement.

This could look like:

  • Repeating something they said back to them
  • Asking a follow-up question
  • Even validating slivers of information you might find you agree with.

That isn’t the same thing as staying silent to keep the peace, Crouch said. Rather, it’s about being more attuned to when it’s an appropriate time to debate.

“If our minds are calm enough that we are having a rational conversation, then I think facts are great. But when people start getting charged, it’s more about the emotional experience of, ‘Do I matter enough for you to listen to me, and do my ideas matter?’” Crouch said.

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Have a plan in mind for if somebody offends you

For people with the bandwidth to go home, Totah recommends having a plan to disengage when relatives are not receptive to a two-way conversation — especially if they have a history of making you uncomfortable or worse.

“Let’s identify the individuals who may be more triggering for you than others. Maybe it’s an uncle, or aunt, or mother, or father — that just their presence can create an intense emotional reaction within somebody,” Totah said. “We try to create as much safety for the person by distracting activities, giving themselves permission to leave and [identifying] support systems within the family.”

Shutting down can be a common response to fighting with loved ones, according to Robyn Bloom, a therapist and director of adult services at Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco.

But it can also later lead to regret — for not standing up for oneself or sharing your opinion and allowing others to take over. Or, as Bloom put it, “At what point does silence equal self-betrayal?”

With her clients, Bloom encourages them to anticipate conflict and develop a plan beforehand, keeping the plan flexible.

Either before your gathering or amid a heated moment, try sharing your intention, Bloom added.

“You can simply say, ‘What’s most important to me here is that we can connect and enjoy our time together. If things start to feel out of sync, can we take a step back together?” Bloom said. “Have that conversation. Acknowledge that things can be hard, but your intention and desire is to feel more connected at the end of the day.”

This isn’t you staying silent — but instead finding a way to hit ‘pause’ on the argument.

Know how to reduce your physical stress in heated moments

When we get upset, our bodies notice. We might feel a tightening in our chest, our head is getting warmer, a shaky feeling or loss of appetite.

Practicing self-soothing is an important skill for those moments to re-regulate the nervous system, allowing us to stay present and engaged when we want to be. Here are a few ways to put this into practice:

Listen to your body

“Identifying what’s happening in the body is a good regulator because it takes you a bit out of your head and the argument and points you to what the sensations in your body are,” Choi said.

Calm your system

Slow, deep breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth is a proven method for calming down.

Light tapping on your chest can also have a soothing effect, Choi said, or a temple massage.

Watch what you put in your body

Bloom also reminds that drinking alcohol can add another tricky element to heated family arguments during holiday gatherings. She suggests being conscious of how substances impact our own (and others) behavior and using that information when determining whether engaging on a topic is worth it or not.

Totah recommends having an ice-cold glass of water handy. The cold temperature triggers a response that can slow the brain down, she said — helping slow the brain down for thoughtful discourse rather than a knee-jerk reaction.

“People are trying to wrap their minds around making sense of everything in their own way,” Totah said. “That’s difficult when your nervous system is overactivated. It inhibits clarity.”

Remember: You can get up and leave

“It’s okay to excuse oneself from that mess of a conversation that’s not going anywhere,” Crouch said.

Emphasize community — and lead with compassion

Totah underscores that it is important to discuss difficult topics and events. But her hope with clients is that these conversations can come from a place of trying to move forward together.

“We need to speak up about what’s happening irrespective of where people are, whether it’s COVID or the election or what’s happening now in Israel and Gaza,” she said. “Let’s not speak of the division and the sides, but how we are all human beings and how we can move forward in a way that minimizes damage. Not just collectively but within our families. It starts with us.”

She also underscores how, within families, people will view situations from their own generational lens and traumas.

“Your parents and grandparents are seeing things from a whole other perspective. How can we find empathy?” Totah said. “As inflammatory or entrenched as some things are, can you find it in your mind to say, ‘That does not have to be my experience’? And ‘Can I allow them to have their experience?’”

Ask yourself: What do you hope to get from being with family over the holidays?

Choi recommends taking inventory of our goals for spending time with family and entering potentially triggering environments. Some questions to ask yourself could be:

  • How am I hoping to feel after this visit?
  • What are things I’m looking forward to sharing with the people I’m visiting?

“Everyone has a different relationship to family. Assuming you want to be there with family, take a step back and understand why you are doing it. Maybe you enjoy the food, the holiday, the people?” Choi told KQED.

“Take the greater perspective of what’s actually going on, which is hopefully some connection and care and relaxation for the holidays.”

This story was originally published on Nov. 22.

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