Don’t be a ‘Grinch’: Reducing conflict during the holidays

by Dr. Krystal White Contributing writer


It is just as easy to be irritable and mean during the holidays as it is to be generous and sweet. Many families find themselves blissfully swimming in a sea of wrapping paper with ridden gratitude one hour and the next screaming over who is hoarding the game system, causing a mess and not helping out enough.

The holidays intensify our sense of connection to those we love. Yet they often are accompanied with temper tantrums, snarky comments and irritated arguments. Feelings of glad tidings and merriment can easily be overshadowed by reoccurring resentments or negative assumptions. Often, we react with frustration and anger rather than peace and joy.

When the big day is finally here, research shows many families begin to argue around 10 a.m. A study of over 4,000 households found that arguing was one of the most experienced rituals of our holiday celebrations. The key triggers of conflict were: stressful pressure to cook the perfect holiday meal, arguments over what to watch on TV, and children creating chaos or messes.

In addition, during larger family gatherings we are likely to encounter other people that regularly irritate us. Psychologist Leonard Felder reports in his research that three-quarters of society has at least one family member who annoys them. University of Louisville psychologist Michael Cunningham identified that “social allergens” run high during the holiday season. Social allergens are habits others have that get down to your last nerve. For example, relatives who always need to “one up you,” kids playing electronics at the dinner table, or a partner who forgot to buy a present as promised.

When we consider the stress of the season, it’s no wonder that arguments come naturally. Add high expectations and physical fatigue together with overconsumption of stimulation, food and drinks, and you have a perfect recipe for family drama.

Very few of us are at our best during the holidays, and no one wants to be a “Grinch” during this time of year either.

Here are the top five things you can do to prevent the Grinch from stealing your holiday joy:

• Clearly define three things that are most important to you and why. For example, perhaps setting up the tree is in your top three because the tree lights have a joyful, calming effect on the children and remind you of being a kid again. Write down these top three experiences in advance and share them with your family.

• Give yourself permission to say “no.” If a task, event or experience is not part of you or your family members’ “top three things,” consider not doing it at all. The goal is to simplify and avoid overstimulation and exhaustion. This can help you feel more grateful for the amount of quality time together and to take less time for granted.

• Come up with clear expectations of who is responsible for certain chores on the big days of celebration. Specify when chores should be completed and reinforce a “team spirit.” For example, perhaps you have a 15-minute “family cleanup time” at 11 a.m. to reduce aggravation over one person doing it all. One idea is to have a Christmas-helper jar: Each family member draws two to three chores for the day with a time frame for completion (e.g., set the table by 2 p.m., help dad or mom in the kitchen between noon and 1 p.m., separate recyclables from 11 a.m. to noon, clear dishes and load the dishwasher after dinner and before evening electronics time).

• Write love notes or words of appreciation throughout the season. Jot down kind words on a sticky note for one other person at least once a day and make them feel special. This habit will train your brain to notice the wonderful things about the season rather than what is annoying.

• Give up a sense of perfection and worrying over details. No one will remember what side dishes you served or what present they received five years from now. But they will remember how it felt to spend quality time with you. Remind yourself that other people matter more than trying to make the perfect meal or buy the perfect present.

(Dr. White is a pediatric psychologist at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and the developmental health consultant for Europe Regional Medical Command. She specializes in healthy habits across the lifespan and evaluating developmental disorders.)