Ways to turn tempers down a notch at gatherings.

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The holidays, as painted by idealists, are hardly the time for disagreements. They’re supposed to be filled with love, laughter, good cheer, and those tiny sparkly lights that make the mood feel festive. Unfortunately, joyous celebration often deteriorates into epic discord when family and friends gather during the season. But you don’t have to get drawn into arguments if you plan ahead and stay alert for potential triggers.

Why do we fight at the holidays?

In many ways, we are primed for holiday arguments. “It’s a stressful time. Buying gifts can lead to financial worries. The weather is colder. Days are darker. We’re trying to juggle work and get time off,” says Justin Gillis, a clinical therapist at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital. “The holidays can also elicit painful memories or make us face unfortunate realities in our lives, such as a lack of family or close support.”

As a result, we are often emotionally vulnerable during the holidays, Gillis says. It’s hard to manage intense feelings, express ourselves accurately, or be open and nonjudgmental.

“When we increase emotional arousal, it impacts our reasoning and subsequent behaviors. So we may be more defensive, or express ourselves in ways that result in conflict,” Gillis says.

Drinking alcohol at holiday gatherings can also fuel arguments, since alcohol lowers inhibitions and makes it harder to remain calm or maintain composure. In a 2021 survey from the American Addiction Centers, 57% of 3,400 respondents said they had at least one family member who becomes argumentative at holiday gatherings after imbibing too much.

Plan ahead to help defuse emotions and arguments

It’s challenging to control emotions in a heated moment. A bit of planning can help you avoid potential arguments or take appropriate action if angry words start flying. Here are some helpful tips.

Set a time limit. If you’re hosting the event, let your guests know in advance what time the festivities will end. If you’re attending the event, tell the host in advance when you’ll have to leave. “Stick to the plan, even if things are going well, so you can end on a high note,” Gillis says.

Ask for help. To help you rein in reactivity, ask someone you trust to give you a sign if a conversation appears to be risky or escalating. “They can chime in and ask you to do something, which is code for, ‘Back out or take a break.’ Doing that will ensure that you separate from the discussion,” Gillis says.

Schedule breaks. Think about when and how you’ll be able to take breaks during a gathering. This gives you an opportunity to check in with your emotions. “You might go into another room and take a moment to breathe deeply, volunteer to help set the table or clean up, or excuse yourself to make a phone call, even if nothing is wrong,” Gillis suggests. “These can be welcome distractions that limit the chance for conflict.”

Prepare words of deflection. If you know loved ones might ask questions that will lead to conflict, have a prepared answer and practice it. “Make a statement acknowledging the person’s feelings and letting them know it’s best for the topic to change,” Gillis says. He suggests using a version of the following statements.

How to de-escalate arguments

If you find that heated debates or arguments are brewing — or boiling over — you can still take a few steps to defuse the situation. Use the deflection statements you practiced, or excuse yourself from the conversation to go do another activity.

Other tips to keep in mind:

Don’t take the bait. Don’t answer nosy questions if you don’t want to. “Change the subject. Move the focus back onto the other person and ask how they’re doing,” Gillis says. And if someone asks a loaded question (such as, “I suppose you voted for that candidate?”), use humor if appropriate (“Let’s talk about the Bruins instead.”) and change the subject or the activity.

Adjust your mindset. “We have to accept that there are perspectives we don’t like and that engaging in conflict isn’t likely to change anyone’s perspective,” Gillis says. “You can choose not to participate in an unhealthy conversation.”

Respond with kindness. “If someone is angry with you, that suggests they really care what you think. Remember that and try to maintain a compassionate stance and response,” Gillis advises.

Remember why you’re there. The goal of the gathering is celebrating, not solving painful or controversial issues. “It’s the holiday. It doesn’t have to be the day when everyone puts their cards on the table to work out problems,” Gillis says. “Make it festive and enjoyable so you can feel that you created a pleasant holiday memory together.”

About the Author

photo of Heidi Godman

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Heidi Godman is the executive editor of the Harvard Health Letter. Before coming to the Health Letter, she was an award-winning television news anchor and medical reporter for 25 years. Heidi was named a journalism fellow … See Full Bio View all posts by Heidi Godman

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