Best Ways to Cope With Family Conflict During the Holiday Season 2020
Dr. Lindsay Malloy, co-founder of Pandemic Parenting
I only recently learned that the first working Monday in January is referred to as “Divorce Day” by family lawyers who say that they see a surge in calls from couples who are splitting up for good after the holidays. Whether these couples have already made the decision and are putting on a brave face for the holidays or spending time together during the holidays pushes them over the line to divorce, we can’t be sure. But we do know that increased stress is common during the holiday season, especially for women, and that there is an uptick in family conflict at the holidays for many reasons.
Pandemic Holidays: Zoom Edition – How to Cope with Family Conflict
Maybe I have sat in one too many Zoom meetings this year, but thinking about family conflict has me fantasizing about being able to “mute” people in real life. And that very 2020 fantasy led to these 4 Zoom-inspired tips for managing family conflict during the holiday season.
1) Turn your microphone on.
“You’re muted” might be the most commonly used phrase of 2020, or at least the phrase with the greatest increase in usage. Even without a global pandemic raging, the holidays can be a minefield for those of us who have difficulty setting boundaries with family, friends, and loved ones. But this is not the year to cave to others’ expectations or, in some cases, their demands because you feel badly about disappointing them. This is the year to “turn your microphone on” and to state clearly what you and your family are comfortable with doing (and not doing) this holiday season. You can do so in a kind, firm, and non-judgmental way.
I recommend being proactive and having such conversations sooner rather than later, especially if you are cancelling holiday plans or modifying the way that those will unfold due to COVID-19. This is a great opportunity to model for our kids what setting boundaries looks like. Try to use “I” statements as much as possible like “I just don’t feel comfortable getting together this year” or “I will only be attending outdoor gatherings where people are able to practice social distancing.” And, for the record, saying “I don’t want to visit because I don’t trust that you have been behaving responsibly” doesn’t count as an “I” statement! “I” statements focus on your perspective/behavior and are less likely to incite or intensify an argument.
Have a plan in place or an exit strategy for what you will do or say in the moment if people are breaking any previously agreed-upon ground rules. It’s not a bad idea to have a few phrases on deck so you can “turn your microphone on” during more heated or difficult moments without getting flustered.
2) Mute other participants as needed.
Empathy can go a long way in preventing or de-escalating family conflict. Remember that empathizing with someone’s feelings doesn’t mean that you are endorsing their feelings or behavior but simply that you understand that they feel a certain way (e.g., “I realize that you are very disappointed/frustrated/angry about this decision”). But, at the end of the day, remember that you cannot control anyone else’s feelings – even those of your very young children. It’s been over a decade since I’ve taken a yoga class from the brilliant instructor and author Ally Hamilton (thanks a lot, herniated disc!), but I can still hear her voice in my head saying, “You cannot manage anyone else’s path.” This can be especially difficult to accept when it comes to our children, siblings, or parents.
You can set your boundaries about the holidays, and you can lay out the “ground rules” of any potential visits, but you can’t control how others react to them. It will be difficult, but if others do not understand your choices, you may just have to metaphorically “mute” them. As a parent, you probably have some experience with this already because judging other people’s parenting choices seems to be a relatively common hobby for some!
3) Be aware of and minimize background noise.
A critical component of “Zoom etiquette” is minimizing background noise. So, we try to hold meetings in quiet places, wear headphones, and mute ourselves when our neighbor’s dog won’t stop barking. Drawing on this Zoom metaphor, the “noise” is all of the stress that the collective trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into our lives and how it swirls in the background of all that we do and each new challenge that we encounter. There are physical, psychological, and financial worries weighing on us and probably everyone we know. This is bound to affect our interactions with others – and most likely in negative ways. It is important to be aware of this and to understand how it might make it more challenging to cope with the types of family conflict that we would normally handle with ease.
4) Take frequent breaks.
Just like we are told to take frequent breaks and step away from the screens to avoid “Zoom fatigue,” you may need to step away from difficult conversations or situations if things become too heated. Sure, storming off in a huff and slamming a door is not particularly helpful and not the emotion regulation strategy we want to model for our children. But, walking away or requesting that the conversation be re-visited at a later time (like after the wine has worn off or when tempers are not flaring) may be the best solution at the time. Some deep breaths may be in order for all parties – including kids. Take it from Elmo; even the littlest ones can benefit from some belly breathing (although I do sincerely apologize that this song will now be stuck in your head well into 2021).
Whether your holidays are taking place over Zoom or not, I hope these tips allow you to pandemic parent – and pandemic partner – your way through the holidays with less stress and more joy.