How to Avoid Family Conflict This Holiday Season

Halifax-based therapist Lana MacLean on how to manage drama at family gatherings.

We dream of family holidays as a time of love, light and laughter, but a pot on the stove may not be the only thing simmering in the background.

Last year at this time, one in four Canadians were feeling moderate to extreme levels of anxiety and were binge drinking. COVID case counts were climbing, restrictions were tightening and in many places across Canada, families were not able to celebrate together. This year, with more than 75 percent of Canadians fully vaccinated, holiday gatherings are likely to resume, along with the potential for family tension and disagreements.

Lana MacLean is a clinical social worker and community advocate based in Halifax, where she is an eighth generation African-Nova Scotian. We asked her for some tips on how to navigate holiday gatherings during a time when conversations about COVID and vaccination status can become tricky.

(Related: ‘Don’t Try to Change Someone’s Reality:’ How My New Blended Family Survived Covid Lockdown)

As a therapist, do you often have people asking for help with family conflict?

Unfortunately, yes. But if people are seeking therapy, they’re looking for some form of reconciliation or resolution. So I think of conflict as an opportunity to stretch and grow families, not as a place to be oppositional. Therapy is about interrogating and exploring the origin of our beliefs.

Is a holiday dinner a good time for having conversations that interrogate our values and beliefs? For example, with the COVID vaccines?

No. I caution families, if you’re going to be celebrating holidays, those conversations need to be held prior to the event, not during the event.

When we hosted Thanksgiving this year, my husband and I had a serious conversation about how we wanted to communicate our boundaries about keeping people safe. And so we sent a group text. We said, “Looking forward to having everyone at Thanksgiving dinner. However, we’re being mindful and asking people to attend only if you have your vaccine.

We have to look out for the best interest of all. You’re welcome to a table we set up outside but you will not be walking indoors unless you are vaccinated.”

My nephew, who is 22, said, “OK, Aunt Lana. I’m disappointed but I’ll show up and have dessert outdoors.” I didn’t know he wasn’t vaccinated. He said, “Can I get a to-go plate?” I said, “Of course you can.”

How did Thanksgiving go?

Amazing! My family members who were not vaccinated made a decision to stay home because the weather was precarious.

My husband and I set the tone for family members to have reasonable expectations without guilt. Our family was receptive to those boundaries and, without any conflict, people realized it’s not about them, it’s about the family.

Some people may say they want to “talk sense” into their family members. Do you feel any of that?

None at all. If we come from a place of anger, it only triggers other people’s defensiveness. I come from a non-judgmental place to say, “I have a responsibility to the people that I love. So if you love us, you’ll understand that this is not about excluding you, it’s actually giving you a choice of being included.”

I work from a values perspective. The choice not to get a vaccine is a value. It only sets [us] up for animosity [to judge or try to change someone’s decision]. I mitigate the negative emotions that can be triggered by saying, “Well, if this is your path, here’s the option I have available.”

You say that choosing not to get vaccinated is a value. Can you explain?

As you know, I’m African Nova Scotian. People in the BIPOC community, our lifeline is in the collective, not in the individual. We are so interconnected as a community.

If you’re making an individual choice [of not being vaccinated], people will straight up tell you, “You need to think about what this means for Granny or the kids in our family who are under 12.” A lot of racialized communities have co-morbidities—health issues like diabetes, cardiac health, asthma, respiratory distresses—as a result of health inequities.

It becomes difficult if you look at it like, “I’m going to become an island, this is my individual choice.” You lose some of your social support network.

So you’re saying that it’s on the host to prepare and set boundaries—and trying to change someone’s mind should not be on the menu at all.

It’s done. I don’t believe the dinner table or family gatherings are the time to talk about who does or doesn’t have the vaccine. For Thanksgiving, we do a potluck. My husband and I do the turkey, salmon and ham and my auntie Sherry Ann brings a big pan of mac and cheese and my brother-in-law does a big, wonderful potato salad. And he said, “It’s those things we’re looking forward to, not talking about COVID.” In my family, it’s a time to play the piano and sing. This year, for the first time, there was a TikTok dance-off. So it’s about how we’re going to set that time up. And sometimes having that structure doesn’t allow us to fall down what I call the COVID rabbit hole and get distracted. Let’s take time to celebrate with each other.

What general guidance do you give to someone who’s nervous about a family gathering and conflict?

Come early, leave early. And let the host know. Figure out who’s in the room, who are the potential triggers and how you’re going to cognitively prepare to show up. Instead of all eight hours of the day, show up for two hours. You can say, I’m going to come for supper, but I have to be somewhere else for dessert.

Two, don’t drink excessively. Drinking can lower inhibitions. And also, our tolerance for certain people’s behaviour can become thinner.

Three, you don’t have to be physically present. You can Zoom in for a little bit.

Also, lower your expectations of people. Have reasonable expectations of yourself and for others. Don’t go and say this is going to be the best Christmas, Thanksgiving, wedding, anniversary ever. That’s just not your family’s functioning. Have some realistic expectations of who you can align with there and who will be your trouble points. And if the trouble point comes along, you know that you and your ally have a little code word to say, “I’m out.”

Most importantly, go and spend time with the people that you do align with. You don’t have to get along with everyone. There’s a lot you can learn at the kids’ table and at the elders’ table. So choose who you want to spend time with in those gatherings.

And when you need to leave, pre-program it on your phone or have somebody ring you. Just say, “OK, there’s my call. I have to leave. Wonderful seeing everyone.” And exit. You don’t need an excuse to leave. Just like you don’t need an excuse to enter.

Is there anything you want to add that you feel is important for readers who are slightly nervous about the holidays?

Know that the nervousness or anxiety comes from a history. Don’t try to untangle those roots when you only have four or five hours. The goal of family celebrations is to spend time together, not to have big debates that there will be impasses on. This is not the time or place to decide to go on a rant. It’s a time and place to say, “Nice to see you.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Hannah Sung’s column appears monthly(ish) on Best Health. It’s adapted from her (excellent) newsletter, At The End Of The Day. If you’re interested in reading more, sign up for it down below or click here.

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Originally Published in Best Health Canada