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Avoiding conflict over Christmas

We all look forward to Christmas and the chance to get together with family and friends; but the close proximity of so many people and one glass of sherry too many can sometimes lead to a few problems. No one wants a family argument about “that incident”, or someone kicking the monopoly board over in a huff.

By Dr Jane Montague - 13 December 2017

To understand how to avoid conflict at Christmas (or any time where we are thrown together as a family group) we need to know something about how our family relationships are built and develop, as well as understanding how the general seasonal pressures add into the mix to exacerbate the issues.

In a family unit we all slip into a ‘role’, so we might have developed as the sibling who does the organising, the parent who slips into the background, the aunt who is the comedian, and so on. These roles may develop and change as we go through life and begin our own families, but when we get together into those familiar groups, where we grew up and developed our personal and social characteristics, they will resurface, even though they might not be apparent in other aspects of our lives. For example, you can probably think of an instance where, as an adult, you’ve met up with an old school teacher or boss, and have immediately slipped into relating to that person in a way that is familiar and reflects the power differential that you felt at the time you originally knew them.

It is exactly the same with families. As the son or daughter you might return home for the Christmas break and become the sullen teenager that you once were. Or you might relive those sibling rivalries that dominated your earlier life. As a parent you might try to make your children do particular things, forgetting that they are now adults themselves. At a time such as Christmas, which carries with it lots of expectations of fun, parties and good food, this is a typical situation where those former arguments, differences and conflicts can begin again.

So how might you avoid that type of conflict while also enjoying some time with other family members? One way is to recognise that these are roles we play. Goffman, a sociologist working in the mid-20th century, talked about us as ‘actors’ who ‘perform’ different aspects of our lives. This is most easily seen in terms of the stories we might tell about ourselves. We will give different accounts of ourselves in a professional setting than we might to our partner or to our children. It is not that any of these are not accurate, but that we tailor them to the setting we find ourselves in.

Similarly, when with a familiar group of people we will revert to performing those aspects of ourselves that fit most comfortably with those around us. Once we begin to recognise this we can adjust our behaviours, reactions and responses to those we are with. If you have a sibling who constantly needles you, for example, think about how you might normally react. Do you respond in a particular way, normally, that exacerbates the situation? If so, and you can begin to identify your own behaviours, you can then start to avoid those situations where you know you are going to have problems. You might usually respond in a hurt or angry way to that individual; however, think about what might happen if you smile at or agree with them, or if you walk away from them when they do it. Changing your response means that they would find it difficult to continue in that same behaviour because they are not then able to respond to you in their usual role.

Of course, this is much easier to write and to advise others than to actually do, especially when we tend to react with emotion, anger or hurt, with cognition, thinking things through clearly. But you could plan to try it once or twice over the Christmas break and see what happens.

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About the author

Dr Jane Montague

Dr Jane Montague
Head of Psychology

Jane is Head of Psychology within the School of Human Sciences. Her teaching and research interests are based within critical approaches to social psychology, particularly in relation to gender, identity and the use of qualitative methods. She currently teaches both undergraduate and postgraduate students and supervises a number of PhD students.

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