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Family Harmony at the Holidays

Keep the peace this holiday season with this expert advice.

With a house full of guests, the holidays can get a bit overwhelming and, at times, make you want to pull your hair out. In order to avoid a Griswold-like holiday disaster, here are six steps you can take to help minimize family conflict and have a peaceful holiday season.

1. Plan Ahead

Before the holidays even start, sit down and make a plan with your family, suggest Dr. Brian Johnson and Dr. Laurie Berdahl, authors of Warning Signs: How to Protect Your Kids from Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression.

“Get everyone’s input (even kids, when they are old enough) and discuss what you’d like to do each day,” says Berdahl, a retired OB-GYN. Clearly communicate expectations and set plans ahead of time, so when the holidays arrive, kids and other family members know exactly what to expect. Johnson, a licensed child psychologist and professor at the University of Northern Colorado, adds that you also don’t want to over schedule your time. As a family, decide what’s most important to you and skip everything else.

2. Set Realistic Expectations

“Don’t set the expectation that everyone is going to sit quietly with napkins on their laps for two hours at dinner,” says Dr. Natalie Abramson, pediatric psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado Department of Endocrinology. If there are numerous children joining in a family meal, try not to schedule it late at night or right in the middle of naptime, she adds. There’s nothing that will ruin a family dinner quicker than a gaggle of cranky kids. Make it realistic and, if you have to, have a separate kids table.

3. Respect Other Traditions

Even though you might be members of the same family, keep in mind that people may celebrate their holiday traditions in different ways. “Try not to take preferences too personally,” says Abramson. “If it’s really important for some members of the family to watch the football game and eat chips instead of pâté in a sit down dinner, respect that people are honoring their traditions individually.”

You can also try to build your own family traditions to increase alignment between family members. She suggests playing a fun outdoor game or a silly board game—something that marks the event as your family tradition and can be enjoyed each year.

4. Don’t Take It Personally

If you have a relative that pushes your buttons, often, you know what those argument triggers are going to be. “If you’ve had fights or hard feelings over a topic before or with a particular person, you can prevent the conflict from happening again by limiting the time you spend with that person or simply avoiding the topic,” says Berdahl. Try not to take other people’s personalities too personally, and avoid power struggles by letting it go if it’s not that important. You don’t have to win every time.

Abramson says, family unity requires healthy boundaries. “Make sure that everyone has distinct roles and responsibilities so that people aren’t interfering with one another,” she says. For example, if your mother-in-law is notorious for criticizing cooking, put her in charge of setting the table instead of helping with the food prep.

5. Understand That You Can’t Control Everything

 “When you get groups together, deadlines and times are harder to keep,” says Johnson. Realize that you’re going to have to go with the flow, and try not to get too flustered if plans change. Also, it’s not your responsibility to make everyone happy. “Sometimes just taking that pressure off yourself can go a long ways in helping to put some of the conflict and bickering between kids and whatnot in perspective,” he says.

6. Keep In Mind the Primary Purpose of the Time.

Remember what the holidays are about, and try not to overly amplify the negative parts. “It’s a time to build links with family members and celebrate something meaningful,” says Abramson. Keep the focus on having a pleasant time, and don’t get so wrapped up in all the parties, gifts, and other obligations. After all, Johnson says, as kids get older, it’s really the time parents spend with them and the activities you engage in as a family that have a lasting meaning.

Christina Cook is the assistant editor of Colorado Parent magazine.

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