Tips for Family Harmony During the Holidays

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

From Thanksgiving to New Year’s, holidays are opportunities to gather for joyful family time, but can also result in unwelcome conflict and bad feelings. Here are tips for harmonious holidays with your kids and relatives.

Communication and planning is key. Before each holiday, talk with parenting partners and school-age and older kids about everyone’s desires and concerns. Who would you like to be with, where, and for how long? Which activities and meals are most important? How can preparation work be shared and minimized? What’s the budget?

Make a plan that includes parts of what each member would like — with flexibility, the ability to go with the flow of last-minute changes promotes harmony. Also consider that spending pleasant time with loved ones will likely matter much more than an extravagance of activities, venues, and food. Research shows that kids grow up remembering what parents and family did together much more than gifts received.

Building holiday activity traditions (jigsaw puzzles, favorite movies or shows, worship services) supports family peace via predictability. We feel that parents deserve priority in valued traditions such as worship services or volunteering. If kids resist, politely state your wish: “It’s very important to me that we share this, and I’ll join you in the activity you wanted.”

Holidays aren’t good times for family conflict resolution or behavior management training. Be prepared with plans for child fighting and misbehavior during family gatherings. Young children get overstimulated easily and act out, so provide downtime. Underscheduling reduces stress and helps avoid conflict because there often isn’t time for everything planned. Also, try to remember past family conflicts to help anticipate and avert them.

• Avoid argument triggers or topics that brought on fights, bad feelings, or defensiveness, such as parenting methods, gift giving, who’s taking care of elderly parents, accomplishments, and politics! If you find yourself wanting to say something that might seem critical, walk away. Let someone else have the last word.

• Limit time you spend with people with whom you’ve had fights or hard feelings.

• Let others decide things of low importance.

• Consider that alcohol and marijuana use can be associated with aggressive reactions to arguments or perceived threats.

• If you anticipate alcohol contributing to conflict, you might limit the supply or ask that an event you host be alcohol-free. Make it a joke (“We’re going back to Prohibition,” or “We’d like a dry holiday”) or simply say, “We’d appreciate if there’s no drinking.”

• If adult kids are bringing friends home, decide sleeping arrangements in advance.

If family arguments do occur, here are tips for de-escalating them:

• Use humor: Don’t tease, but tell a joke or do something goofy.

• Use polite assertiveness: “I’m worried we’ll get upset discussing this more, so let’s play a game instead.”

• Change the subject or take a time out: “Let’s talk about something lighter,” or “I’m tired. Maybe we can talk about it later.”

• Be able to give in or let go (even if you are right).

• Pick a place (an area in the house or park) you can go if things get uncomfortable.

• It’s hard to de-escalate a drunk, belligerent person, so avoid getting to this point. Say, “I’m worried about still having fun (or about the kids), so can I replace your drink with a soda?” You might need to leave with the kids, call a taxi to pick up the person, or call law enforcement if things get violent.

If you worry about aggressive teens or young adults, start with the planning discussions above, balancing time with friends and family. Set clear behavior expectations needed for a fun holiday (such as no swearing, drinking, drug use, disrespectful name calling, threatening, fighting with siblings or parents).  

If children will be splitting time between you and another parent, making arrangements early will help reduce stress and improve chances of happy holidays for all. Although holidays are rarely all that we desire, we hope that using these tips will help you make them pleasant enough to create fond family memories.

Dr. Laurie Berdahl is an OB-GYN, parenting and adolescent wellness author, and speaker. Brian D. Johnson, PhD, is a University of Northern Colorado professor, and licensed child and adolescent psychologist. They are authors of the new book, Warning Signs: How to Protect Your Kids from Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression ( and their prior award-winning book, 7 Skills for Parenting Success.