How To Deal With Family Issues

A Guide To Handling Family Drama

Family. You can’t live with them and you can’t live without them. It’s safe to say that this can be a tricky topic for many. No matter how much you love them (or hate them), families can be dysfunctional and spending time with them during holidays and family events can trigger conflict or, dredge up old arguments. 

Even the closest of families experience conflict when plied with alcohol and when forced to spend a prolonged amount of time together. All of this makes for a stressful time and feelings of anger, anxiety and stress can easily arise. 

Stress Chemicals

We’ve talked about brain chemicals before and how many of our feelings, actions and decisions are influenced by the release of chemicals in the brain. The same applies here. Certain chemicals will be released in your brain when you experience a stressful situation. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Cortisol
  • Epinephrine (Adrenaline)
  • Norepinephrine
  • Dopamine. 

These chemicals combined can produce physiological changes that “make the heart pound, breathing quicken, muscles tense and beads of sweat appear.” This reaction is known to us as “fight-or-flight” response, fight the threat or take flight to safety. This response is the body’s natural “survival mechanism” in life-threatening or dangerous situations. In an article, Harvard Health comments on how the body can often sometimes act irrationally “the body can overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as traffic jams, work pressure, and family difficulties.

Stress over a long period can affect your physical and psychological health, with chronic stress leading to “brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction.” As family drama can contribute to this, we’ve come up with some science-backed tips and techniques on reducing stress and handling family conflict, not just during Christmas but also, Easter, Thanksgiving, Eid, Hanukkah and even Talk Like a Pirate Day. 

Coping Imagery

International stress experts Stephen Palmer and Cary Cooper wrote a book titled How To Deal With Stress. In this book, they provide many helpful techniques on how to successfully handle stress. One of the most effective stress management techniques that is recommended to use in “difficult situations or potential stress scenarios” such as those created at family gatherings, is called “coping imagery” and it goes a little something like this

  1. Think of a future situation that you are stressed about
  2. Note down aspects of the situation that you are more stressed about
  3. Develop ways to deal with these difficulties. 

(Palmer and Cooper, 2013)

This is a great technique to try before you go to any family event, especially if there is a particular situation or argument which may arise. By using this coping imagery, it enables you to prepare yourself for what may potentially go wrong and what you can do to solve the situation. Furthermore, as you’ve already envisioned all the possibilities of conflict and identified ways to  handle them, if and when they do arise, you may feel less stressed as the family starts to arrive. 

If coping imagery isn’t enough for you. Don’t worry, there’s more to come. 

Topics To Avoid

According to Karen Dempsey of The Awareness Centre, one of the leading providers of counselling and psychotherapy, there are several topics which tend to be the cause of family conflict and these include:

  • Money or the lack of it 
  • Sibling/ family attention
  • Expectations of family members
  • Relationship with in-laws
  • Communication or rather, lack of from certain family members. 

Staying away from these topics around the dinner table will help to steer clear of arguments and raised tempers. Instead, try to navigate the conversation towards neutral topics of conversation such as the weather, sports, news, hobbies, work and maybe ask Uncle Terry if he’s seen any new films on Netflix or if he’s heard Stormzy’s new album. 

Managing Conflict

In case you’ve tried these tips and for whatever reason an argument can’t be avoided then here is one way of productively coming to a resolution. The Awareness centre recommends you follow these tips in managing conflict:

  1. Check your mindset, are you trying to prove your point or to resolve the conflict? Identify what your aim is (proving your point isn’t the best start)
  2. Cooldown first, it’s best not to enter a situation if you’re raging and stressed, this can inflame the situation instead of calm it
  3. Own it, it takes two to tango, own up to your part of the conflict
  4. Listen, listening to the other person may help you to understand the situation better and will let them know that you care about resolving the issue
  5. Use “I”, using terms such as “you make me angry, this is your fault” etc can add fuel to the fire and will feel like you’re blaming the other person. Using “I” shifts the focus onto your feelings rather than their actions. 

Regardless of what happens, it’s best to remember that unfortunately you can’t choose your family and at least you only have to see them a couple of times of the year. Try to focus on the positives and generally avoid any disliked or problematic family members. And if a conflict is non-negotiable, well, we hope we have emotionally armed you to tackle it head-on. 

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Sources Cited:

Palmer, S. and Cooper, C. (2013). How To Deal With Stress. 3rd ed. London: Kogan Page Limited.


Sajal Azam

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