Family Conflict

How to Dodge Family Conflict This Holiday Season

A Therapist found in Halifax, Lana MacLean drives the drama of family life.

We imagine family holidays as a time for joy, love, and light, but a stove’s flame might not be the only thing cooking at the back of the room.

Last year around this time, one in four Canadians were experiencing high to moderate degrees of anxiety. They also were excessively drinking. The number of COVID cases increased, the restrictions were growing, and families could not spend the holidays together in many areas across Canada. With over 75% of Canadians completely vaccinated, the holiday celebrations are expected to return, with the possibility of family tension and disputes.

Lana MacLean is a clinical social worker and advocates for the community-based in Halifax in Canada. She is an eighth-generation African-Nova Scotian. We asked her to share some suggestions on how to handle the holiday season, where discussions about COVID and vaccination status could be a challenge.

As a therapist, do you often encounter clients who ask for help dealing with family conflicts?

Unfortunately, yes. If people are looking for therapy, they’re searching for some resolution or reconciliation. Therefore, I see conflict as a chance to expand and strengthen families rather than a reason for a conflict. Therapy is about questioning and examining the roots of our beliefs.

Are our holiday dinners an ideal time to have conversations that challenge our beliefs and values? Like, for example, when discussing one of the COVID vaccines?

No. I warn families that when you’re planning on celebrating holidays, these discussions should be conducted before the celebration and not at the time of the event.

While hosting Thanksgiving this year, my partner and I engaged in a long conversation about how we would like to let our families know our limits in protecting people. So we decided to send an all-group text. But, we’re mindful and ask guests to come only if they have their vaccination.

We must look at the best interests of everyone. We’ll be able to invite you to the table we have set up outside but won’t be in the house unless you’ve been vaccinated.”

My nephew, 22 years old, told me, “OK, Aunt Lana. He said, “Can I get a to-go plate?” I said, “Of course, you can.”

What was the Thanksgiving experience like?

Amazing! My family members who weren’t vaccinated chose to stay at home as the weather was uncertain.

We set the example that family members should have reasonable expectations and not feel guilty. Our family was very open to these boundaries and, with no conflict, the family members realized that they were not in the wrong. It’s about the family.

A few people might say they would like to “talk sense” into their family members. Have you felt any one of those?

There is no need to be concerned. If we are coming out angry, this creates defensiveness in others. I’m in an open and non-judgmental space to state, “I have a responsibility to those I cherish. If you truly love us and you understand this isn’t about being a barrier to you, but giving you the choice of being accepted.”

I operate from a value standpoint. The decision not to get an immunization is a choice that has value. It is only setting us to be a target for resentment [to judge or change someone else’s decision or influence someone else’s decision. I try to reduce the negative feelings that are triggered by declaring, “Well, if this is your path, here’s the option I have available.”

It is said that deciding not to have a vaccination is good. What is your explanation?

As you may know, my name is African Nova Scotian. Those of us in the BIPOC community are a part of our collective and not the individual.

It gets complicated when you consider it as, “I’m going to become an island; this is my individual choice.” You’ll lose a portion of your social network.

It’s the host’s responsibility to cook and establish boundaries, but trying to alter someone’s mind shouldn’t be an option in any way.

It’s done. I don’t believe that the dinner table or family gatherings are an excellent occasion to discuss who has or doesn’t have the vaccine. For Thanksgiving, we do a potluck. My husband and I cook the turkey and salmon and ham, and Auntie Sherry Ann makes a massive dish of cheese and mac. Also, my brother-in-law makes a huge delicious potato salad. He also stated, “It’s those things we’re looking forward to, not talking about COVID.” My family is time to sit down and play the piano or sing. It’s all about how we’ll arrange the time. Sometimes, the structure will prevent us from falling into the COVID rabbit holes and becoming lost. We should take the time to be together and celebrate.

What advice can you provide to someone worried about a family gathering and conflicts?

Get up early, go home early. Make sure you inform the host. Determine who’s present and who could be the triggers, and what you’ll do to prepare yourself to arrive mentally. Instead of being present for all eight hours in the day, be there for at least two hours. You could say, I’m planning to attend a dinner party, but I’ll have to get somewhere else to have dessert.

Two, don’t drink excessively. Alcohol can cause inhibitions to decrease. In addition, our tolerance of specific behaviors of others can get smaller.

Third, there is no need to need in person. You can zoom in for just a bit.

Also, reduce your expectations of others. Be realistic about your expectations of yourself and other people. Don’t say that this will be the most incredible wedding, Christmas anniversary, or wedding ever. It’s not how your family’s work. Be realistic about the people you’re able to join there and who are your troublesome points. If a problem occurs, you’ll be aware it is because you as a partner have a code word to indicate, “I’m out.”

The most important thing is to spend time with those you agree with. There’s no need to agree with everybody. There’s plenty you can learn from the children’s table and the older tables. Choose who you’d like to spend time with during these gatherings.

When you’re ready to go out, program it to your mobile or ask someone else to call you. I’m leaving. Wonderful seeing everyone.” And exit. There’s no reason to go. In the same way, you don’t need an excuse to go in.

Are there any other points you would like to add that you think is necessary to readers who might be worried about the coming holidays?

Be aware that your anxiety or fear comes from a past. Don’t attempt to unravel the roots of stress amid only four or five minutes. Family gatherings are meant to bond with loved ones and not have huge arguments that lead to disagreements. This isn’t the time or venue to vent your frustrations. It’s the right time and place where you can say, “Nice to see you.”

Visit Bronte Medical Center for more health information.

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