‘Tis the season to be jolly. But between chaotic cooking disasters, frantic present-buying and snide criticism from your parents, sometimes the holiday season isn’t always so merry and bright. Expectations are high. And if you throw in a handful of board games, free-flowing alcohol and noisy kids, you have all the ingredients for an explosive row. 

The festive period can be an overwhelming smorgasbord of close, and not-so-close, relatives. And if you already have a fraught relationship with your family, it’s understandable if you feel a bit on edge. You’re not alone in feeling this way too. For many, a seasonal squabble has become the hallmark of Christmas time, with 44% of UK adults admitting that they’ve argued with a family member during the festive holidays, according to a survey by relationships charity Relate

Why are arguments so common at Christmas? 

Many families bicker at Christmas time. Your siblings might squabble over the TV remote or perhaps your dad has a tendency to storm off after an embarrassing Scrabble defeat. 

But, besides these surface-level arguments, there are other, more serious, reasons why people might be prone to snapping during the holidays.

These include:

  • Lack of boundaries or personal space
  • Missing people who aren’t there (e.g. due to bereavement or estrangement)
  • Financial worries
  • Relationship difficulties 
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Abuse or trauma
  • Rejection from family members (e.g. if they don’t accept your LGBT+ identity)
  • The pressure to enjoy yourself and feel happy
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Alcohol and substance abuse
  • Managing an eating disorder 
  • Reduced access to GPs and other mental health services 

Tips to help you cope with family arguments this Christmas

If you’re worried about a family bust-up this holiday season, here are a few tips to help you cope. 

Recognise your family dynamics 

In many families, getting along isn’t always a given. Maybe you have an intense sibling rivalry or your parents are your worst critics. Being aware of these family dynamics can help you be better prepared so you don’t respond impulsively. When someone riles you up, simply acknowledge that this is an old story playing out, take a deep breath and choose a different response. 

Practice acceptance

“Things would be easier if dad wasn’t so uptight”, “I wish mum was with us this Christmas”, “Why can’t we be more like other families?”…

Sound familiar? We put enormous pressure on ourselves to create the ‘perfect Christmas’. So, when the reality doesn’t quite stack up, it can be pretty heartbreaking. 

But what if we tried to accept that not everything is going to go 100% right? What if we told ourselves that the ‘perfect Christmas’ doesn’t really exist, and that’s okay?

If we approached the holidays from this frame of mind, we might find that we’re less likely to lash out. Negative thoughts might not occupy our minds and we could pick our battles (and know when to grit our teeth). 

By accepting our less-than-ideal holiday, we might be able to peace with our emotions and heal, even if we wish things were different. So be kind to yourself, and let go of any unrealistic expectations or pressure. 

Get some space

Christmas can feel a little claustrophobic when you’re cooped up indoors, so if tensions start to become frayed, why not take some time out? Maybe you could catch up on your favourite TV show, go for a stroll outside, or call a friend? Although Christmas is a time for togetherness, you’re not being a Scrooge for wanting some ‘me’ time too. Boundaries are important for any family.

If you’ve got a short fuse and feel like you’re about to lash out, some space might help you cool down in the heat of the moment too. Next time you feel angry at someone, remove yourself from the situation. This doesn’t mean storming out and slamming doors. Simply leave the room, take a deep breath and count to 10. This gives you time to process your frustrations in a calm way. 

Mentally prepare your responses

Besides physical boundaries, you might want to consider emotional boundaries too. Let’s say you have the same never-ending row with your in-laws every time you see them. Maybe they make cruel comments about your weight, scoff at your job, or make condescending remarks about your relationship. With a little planning (and a few deep breaths) you might be able to avoid a family bust-up. Decide beforehand what you’re prepared to tolerate and where you draw the line. That way, you know when to be assertive and when to let things slide.

It might also be helpful to plan some answers in advance so you’re not caught off guard. If you decide you want to stand your ground, try to take the high road though. Don’t criticise, stay calm and be the adult in the situation (even if the other person is acting childish).

Breathe in and breathe out

When a family member is pushing your buttons, you might feel like you could explode at any minute. But ask yourself: is it worth the argument? 

If you decide to bite your tongue, deep breathing exercises can really help to release any tension you may be feeling. Simply breathe out for longer than you breathe in, and as you exhale try and relax. This signals our parasympathetic system to calm down the body. 

If you would like to hear someone talk you through a breathing exercise step-by-step, you can listen to the ‘Balanced Breathing’ or ‘Paced Breathing’ exercise in Self-care, our audio and video therapy library. 

Perfect the art of gift-giving 

Just ripped open some wrapping paper to discover another pair of socks you’re not going to wear? Or maybe you’ve blown a small fortune on gifts and sunken deep into your overdraft? 

Christmas is a time for goodwill but gift-giving can be a catalyst for many arguments. If you’re not elated with your present, remember it’s the thought that counts. Practice gratitude and be polite.

Financial worries can be a big stressor too so it might also be helpful to agree on a budget before the big day. Flashy gifts are nice but the overwhelming financial burden can weigh heavily on people’s minds. 

Limit your alcohol consumption

A glass of bubbly, a few Christmas cocktails, and a bottle of wine to go with the festive feast… When everyone’s in the festive spirit it can be easy to let alcohol take over. But a few too many tipples can cause sparks to fly. Why? Because alcohol makes it hard to think straight. After a few units, we might have tunnel vision, misread social cues, and disregard the consequences of our actions. 

To avoid altercations, try and go easy on the booze. Avoid binge drinking, keep track of your drinks or why not have an alcohol-free holiday? Alcohol is a natural depressant — it suppresses the hormones that make you feel happy — so without it, you may find yourself feeling brighter, fresher and more well-rested. 

Keep an eye out for people who may suffer from alcohol addiction too. The holidays can be a particularly tricky time so ask them if they have any worries and listen without judgement. It’s also good to avoid drinking occasions if it’s hard for them. 

Divide up tasks 

Grocery shopping, present wrapping and that’s all before you start cooking the three-course meal…. All the best bits about Christmas don’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of legwork. 

If you bear the brunt of the festive chores, it’s easy to get overloaded and overwhelmed. You might be more irritable too. So why not divide up the chores so you’re less stressed? It’s not selfish to ask for help. 

On the flip side, if you usually kick back and relax during the holidays, why not offer a helping hand this year? Maybe you could whip up a dessert or offer to do the dishes? Just a small act of kindness could make the difference to someone’s holiday. 

Plan activities to pass the time 

Boredom-based bickering is common during the holidays. To avoid surly remarks and exasperated sighs, why not plan some peaceful activities to keep you busy? You could grab some fresh air and go for a family walk. Or why not entertain the kids by playing with their new toys?

Be flexible

You forget to buy batteries, the turkey is bone dry and now your grandad has called to say he’s running an hour late for dinner. Life loves to throw us curve balls — and it’s no different when it’s Christmas time. Instead of letting these mishaps aggravate you, try to adapt to the situation. Christmas is just one day of the year and odds are — no matter how meticulously you plan — something will go awry. Be flexible and don’t let it get to you. If you reframe your thinking, it might even be a funny anecdote to tell next year. 

Show compassion

Your belligerent aunt is criticising your every move, your parents keep making snooty comments and your sister is mainlining a hot chocolate in the kitchen just to avoid everyone. You might feel like you’re at your last tether but before you snap back, try and see the bigger picture. Where is this argument stemming from? Is there anything going on in their life that could explain their behaviour? 

Despite the cheery carols and festive films telling us otherwise, Christmas can be a difficult time. Your aunt might not be full of festive cheer because she feels lonely and isolated, or maybe your dad is fretting about finances because he’s recently been made redundant. If anyone in your family suffers from mental health problems they might find the holiday season particularly tough too. 

None of this negates the hurt they’ve caused or the pain we’re feeling, but it may help us to be more empathetic and understanding. If anything, the argument might not have even been about you. They might just be lashing out because deep-down they’re hurting too. 

Remember it’s just a day 

When we picture the holidays, we might imagine the twinkling fairy lights, the piney scent of the Christmas tree and all our loved ones joking over a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. 

But sometimes it doesn’t work out this way. 

If your Christmas is filled with more family feuds than festive cheer, be kind to yourself. Remember your family is only human and we all have our faults. You might find it comforting to call the other important people in your life. Remind yourself of how loved and appreciated you are. But, most importantly, tell yourself that Christmas is just one day of the year. You have so much more to look forward to.