How to Navigate Difficult Conversations During the Holiday Season

Navigating difficult conversations during the holidays

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

Spending time with family and friends is often one of the highlights of the holiday season. However, these gatherings may involve tension for some families. Talk of politics and other topics ripe for disagreement with loved ones can be common. Such conversations can be stressful and can even create discord in families. Learn more about how to navigate these difficult conversations during the holiday season.

Politics, Race, and Public Health

According to a 2019 article, many Americans believe that politics have negatively impacted their physical health, emotional well-being, and personal relationships.

Unfortunately, folx sometimes fail to understand the inherent privilege of viewing decisions that can determine the difference between life and death for more oppressed folx as "just politics" which they can simply refrain from discussing with family.

Unlike Black folx who were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and police brutality, or undocumented folx in ICE detention centers—some have the privilege of enjoying the holidays with their families still intact. While it may be easy to refrain from difficult conversations with loved ones, folx can improve the lives of more marginalized folx by addressing ignorance within their families over the holiday season.

For the folx getting together this holiday season—considering the political, racial, and public health climate in the U.S.—engaging in difficult conversations about these sensitive topics may be more necessary now than ever before.

Politics

Considering how ignoring the subject of politics negatively impacts oppressed folx, it's vital to have these conversations. Past decisions to prioritize the comfort of your family members by not discussing politics over the holidays may have contributed to safety concerns for marginalized folx (BIPOC, disabled, Muslim, trans, etc.) It's become more evident that these conversations can no longer be brushed aside.

In a 2017 ethnographic study, talking politics was considered a valued discursive practice across family generations, aligned with labor movement involvement, and progressive social change.

A 2020 article recommended that folx "build toward collective political and educational projects that seek to reclaim a politicized notion of “heart”: one that troubles traditional narratives of family and nation and elevates possibilities for more historically responsive, intersectional movements for justice."

A 2019 study considered political conversations to be a central feature of a democracy, and it found that "having people in one’s network who are knowledgeable about political issues strongly propels people to discuss such issues more frequently."

Race

In a 2015 research study, racialized physical traits of dark skin and stereotypically Afrocentric features proved to be an important factor in shaping punitive attitudes toward immigrants, with a nationwide sample of 767 white, non-Latino adults in the initial experiment, that was later replicated with a survey of 902 white, non-Latino adults.

Such findings reinforce the need for folx to address issues of white supremacy within their families for the sake of racial justice.

Public Health

Even as society continues to return to the new normal in the wake of COVID-19, conflicts over how the pandemic was managed can continue to be a source of debate in many families. For some, arguments over whether or not to get vaccinated against the virus can become a point of contention and ire.

While this public health crisis may seem obvious, some folx still do not believe that this needs to be taken seriously.

Even though it may feel uncomfortable to confront family and friends with differing views, it is crucial to address misinformation with family members.

How to Engage With Family

When challenging discussions are expected, it can help for folx to prepare themselves in advance for seeing loved ones, especially given how the current climate can escalate family tensions.

It may also be beneficial to consider how to de-escalate situations that get too heated for the holidays, in terms of what has worked before to manage family disagreements.

In some cases, setting boundaries with relatives may be new territory well worth the effort, so it may be best to let family know that their statements or questions are problematic and ask them to refrain from such violations.

Conversations Can Facilitate Social Change

A 2018 article that used a case study of community-led recovery in New Zealand following multiple earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 shed light on how "disaster, as a time of disruption, can provoke a heightened awareness of dynamics of power and contestation."

In this way, the turbulent events of 2020 may have marked a turning point for Americans to reckon with the critical work that is necessary to bring forth social change.

Should family tensions arise, it may be useful to focus on what factors bring your loved ones together as opposed to what divides relatives, as in the case of common interests or shared hobbies. Alternative topics or conversation starters can also be brainstormed in advance to ensure that conflict is kept to a minimum.

Spending the Holidays Alone

With everything happening in the world, you may decide that you are better off spending the holidays alone, especially if you are marginalized by such factors as race, class, gender, ability, sexual orientation, etc.

The lived reality of oppression can make it even more crucial to prioritize your mental health while balancing a desire (or obligation) to be with family, especially if they are not or have not always been supportive of you.

In such situations, getting together with family for the holidays may bring fears of gaslighting (such as trans folx being misgendered by relatives).

Should you come to believe that you are better off spending the holiday season alone, it may be useful to reflect on family holiday traditions that you enjoy and may still be able to engage in. Also, come up with a plan for yourself that includes some activities that will provide a healthy distraction.

Prioritizing Your Mental Health

If you do find yourself navigating difficult conversations during the holiday season, you may benefit from developing a safety plan to manage your mental health especially if you're experiencing the impacts of grief.

Holidays can be a trigger if you are missing relatives in ICE detention centers or know folx who have been negatively affected by COVID-19 or police brutality.

It can be helpful to make a list of folx you can call if needed, as well as coping strategies that work best for you in moments of distress, sadness, or anger. Since you know your family, and can anticipate certain comments, questions, and discussions, it's important to think ahead and come up with statements or a script that will help you respond. Prioritizing your mental health means practicing boundary setting before you are with your family.

A Word From Verywell

The holidays can be stressful for a variety of reasons. While some may enjoy spending time with family and friends for the holidays, this may not be the best approach for you. Or, maybe it is a matter of setting boundaries with loved ones in advance to minimize the risks of harm, especially if you belong to a marginalized group.

In situations as unique as individual family dynamics, it can be helpful to remember that your needs are the main priority, regardless of obligatory expectations. This may mean that you prioritize time with friends instead of family over the holidays. Or maybe you take a much-needed escape from others and curl up with a good book or watch a movie or television show that brings you joy and peace. If you feel lonely, or need to talk to someone, SAMHSA's National Helpline (800-662-HELP) is a great option.

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