The season to be jolly? How to deal with family conflict at Christmas

By - Tuesday 23rd December, 2014

Gather all your relatives. Overfeed them and give them plenty to drink. Get the children hyper. Croydon’s own parenting coach can help you deal with the consequences

Photo by hj west, used under Creative Commons licence.

In my Croydon Advertiser column and on my Parenting Geek coaching blogs, I help people face the challenges children and families bring – however much we love them. That’s never more true than at Christmas.

I love Christmas – the lights, the decorations, the films and the terrible jumpers. I want it to be special for my family and I know many people feel the same – then experience stress and pressure as they spend a lot of time, money and effort preparing for the day, with high expectations and great hopes.

So – how can we make this Christmas live up to those expectations – happy and harmonious for us and the people we’ll be spending it with?

Planning and preparation are key.

Practical preparation

The amount of information we have to keep track of to plan and prepare for Christmas can be quite overwhelming. Lists can become our best friends – keeping track of what’s done and what’s not, but also letting us know what can be delegated or ditched. Christmas is nicer as a group effort but if you do most of it yourself, you’ll have to make tough decisions about things you just won’t be able to manage. It’s just a couple of days, gifts for those you love and a big dinner. It is not worth driving yourself to total exhaustion over.

Physical preparation

Make part of your Christmas preparation early nights and some restful days for the children. Well-rested, well-nourished and following a predictable, normal routine, they’ll have energy reserves for the late nights and irregular routines of your celebrations. Remember that teenagers, like toddlers, are going through a period of massive brain growth and mental and emotional development and also need a great deal of sleep, so build downtime and easy days into the schedule for you all. And if you exercise regularly, keep it going, both for its stress management benefits and also to keep you active over what can become a very sloth-like few days.

Emotional preparation

You can have too much of a good thing, especially as a child: too much excitement, too much stimulation, too many new things, too many people and too much rich food and sweets. Write a list for each member of the family containing calming, stress-reducing activities for that person: quiet time and relaxation, running, bike rides, baking, reading, kicking a ball, craft activities, reading, a bath, drawing, watching a film or favourite programme, music, yoga or a nap are just a few to get your brainstorm started. Then, if anyone is climbing the walls or losing their cool, consult the list, find an activity that suits that person at that time of day and shepherd them into a break.

What to do if big bad feelings hit at Christmas


It sounds dull and nerdy, but anger management plans need to be as well thought out as your shopping lists this Christmas. Much of the work of managing big emotions is in the teaching and preparation. Your children can learn little or nothing about managing their anger whilst they are angry, so start talking to them now about your expectations and about strategies that they could use.

They basically need to be able to tell you that they are angry and why, in a clear and assertive way and without physical and verbal aggression. Teach them the sentence “I am feeling ——– because ———- and I would like ——–” so that they have a simple way to express themselves when the feelings are so big that they threaten to overwhelm them. Take a time out for yourself, too, if you can feel yourself losing your cool about their temper or attitude, explaining that you need a few minutes as you are getting mad too.

The bad mood blues

Finding yourself in a bad mood at Christmas just feels wrong! If the unthinkable plight of a Christmas bad mood descends upon you, actively work to avoid criticising others and yourself whilst the bad mood is around. There is nothing quite like the filter of a bad mood to make us look at things in a negative, hostile, accusatory, aggressive way. When the bad mood has passed, you just won’t feel this strongly. If you voice these bad-mood-opinions to others, criticising and berating them, you’ll have to go around fixing the damage you’ve done afterwards. Try to ignore the bad-mood opinions, or see them for what they are: a grumpy set of thoughts that you will feel differently about when your mood has lifted.


There is nothing as disheartening as seeing a child open a sack full of presents and then within hours hearing that they are bored and have nothing to do. Be prepared for this, though; it will happen in many homes. My children have always taken a few days to acclimatise to new things and so don’t always want to play with new toys until they’ve been around for a while and become familiar. Have old favourites ready, make quiet times when they can just draw, read or watch a film.

Children will still want time and attention even if they have many new toys to play with, so make time for this. In years to come they will remember how they felt at Christmas, not what they got.

Christmas lights in Croydon.
Photo by Alvin Shivmangal, used with permission.

Coping with conflict

There’s little point trying to have reasoned, rational conversations in the heat of the moment. Remember that the skills of conflict resolution are part of our lifelong learning. If you doubt this, look around at the adults you know and see how badly they often resolve their own disagreements.

Teach your children to actively look for solutions and to keep the other person’s point of view in mind alongside their own. If they are too angry or sad to discuss it at the time, review it after the event so that they can still learn from it. Gradually and steadily their ability to understand, resolve and learn from conflict will develop and mature.

Avoid the painful traps of over-explaining and over-negotiating with your child. Decide on the areas over which you have full authority, such as safety, health and education, and clearly tell them the rule, decision or expectation. In other areas there will be more room for negotiation.

Think through the predictable times and issues when rows will start and come up with some solutions ahead of time. When children bicker and squabble it can drive us to distraction and make it difficult to react appropriately or effectively, so being ready with thought-through possible responses can make it easier to say and do things that you’re proud of rather than shamed by.

Croydon Christmas lights switch-on, 13th November 2014.
Photo by Alvin Shivmangal, used with permission.

Family matters

Christmas may be thought of as family time, but if you’re cooking for the five thousand while also looking after and spending time with guests, children can be left to their own devices more than usual. If you find this is leading to sibling squabbles, constant demands for attention and boredom, then seek to create more time with them and for them.

Tell them that you need to finish cooking this meal or to have a conversation with a guest, but that you and they will have time later on. “I can’t stop now or dinner won’t be ready until next Christmas, but once we’ve eaten and all the washing up is done, let’s play that new game/read that new book/use that new craft set. I would really appreciate your help in being so patient”. And see tough moments and tantrums as storms that will pass, not as a season that you’re stuck in.

Google the hash tag #invitationtoplay for ideas for activities you can set up for even the smallest of children to play independently for a little while, and once you get the idea, use your imagination to create more: these can include computer-based activities, photography and crafts.

Is your extended family more Addams Family than Brady Bunch?

You may need to do some mental preparation in readiness for spending such a lot of uninterrupted time with them. Families have very long memories and when old triggers are activated, events can play out towards drama, negativity and upset. If we let rip and speak our mind in a moment of anger and hostility, we can be left looking like the baddie and suffering the consequences. So how can we get through all of the extra time together with minimal drama and conflict?

At Christmas, I mostly want to hear you chanting under your breath: “This too will pass. This too will pass.” No matter what goes on, what is said, done or implied, all of the visitors will leave and you will be back to your own home or just your own family soon. Vent to your close friends if you need to get stuff off your chest. They will ooh and ah and tell you how wrong the irritating or unbelievable the person was. Remember that their agreement doesn’t make your version of events the only correct interpretation, though. They are your friends: of course they’re siding with you.

Your thoughts create your feelings. If you decide to expect the very worst, interpret things negatively and wind yourself up, then you will feel sad, angry, frustrated, irritated, isolated, betrayed and/or let-down. To manage people you find difficult, put yourself in their shoes and empathise with their viewpoint to get a wider perspective and a bit more understanding of where they are coming from. Decide not to let their words or sentiments dictate your feelings and rise above it if they behave badly. They will go home eventually!

And finally…

Take five or ten minutes to think about the kind of Christmas that you want for 2014. Use these wishes as your guide as you plan and shape the festivities in your home. If you want togetherness and connection for example, consider how to create opportunities for conversations and shared activities. If you want peace and harmony, how can you help your children and family to be kind, thoughtful and patient with each other? And if you want a real party atmosphere and a lively, bubbly celebration, how can you ensure that everyone has the energy and positivity to laugh, play, and dance and enjoy the festivities whatever age they are? As you choose your guests, food, music, gifts, decorations and outings and plan the chores and practicalities, focus on the outcomes you want. You are much more likely to get what you focus on.

And so it only remains to wish you and those you will spend Christmas with a very happy and harmonious holiday season.

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Tara Green

Tara Green

Tara Green is a mum of three and wife of one, parenting blogger and coach, hoping that no one will notice that she's learning the craft of raising kids whilst on the job. Specialist life coach for children and parents, providing individual sessions and group workshops. Parenting columnist for the Croydon Advertiser. Find out more at

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  • Anne Giles

    Excellent article. I know nothing about parenting, of course, but I do know about family disagreements at Christmas. Not easy.