Not So Silent Night

Not so silent night. Dont make xmas the fighting season

Know your triggers, and other tips for dealing with family conflict

If you type “family conflict at Christmas” in to Google you get well over 20 million opinions on how you should behave to avoid it, and that is just for the average extended family, it doesn’t even consider those who are separated or co-parenting who have a much larger set of possible triggers during the holiday season.

But don’t worry there are some simple things you can do to make it less like the fighting season and more likely to be one of joy and Christmas spirit that your kids will remember for all the right reasons. 

Putting good strategies and a set of clear rules in place before the trouble starts makes a big difference especially over the Christmas period.


Not so silent night. Dont make it the fighting season

1. Understand the patterns of conflict.                     

One key to approaching the holidays with your ex is to acknowledge that while fights can feel unprecedented and deeply personal, they are often quite formulaic. Being aware of common patterns can help you hone strategies to better cope with them.

Throughout his clinical-training process, applied psychologist and author of the book Resolve: Negotiating Life’s Conflicts with Greater Confidence, Dr. Hal Movius spent thousands of hours listening to people fight with their partners, their ex’s, their families, and themselves. “There’s research showing that ex couples, at least, tend to fall into fairly predictable traps when dealing with conflict,” he says. “The most common is that one person starts with a criticism; the other responds by being defensive or counter-criticizing, the first person then renews the criticism or becomes defensive.”

“One person starts with a criticism; the other responds by being defensive.”


Movius adds that it’s especially difficult to keep cool when we’re tired, unsupported, and financially strained—which, come the holidays, is practically the status quo. When everyone is starting off on thin ice, fights can have middling triggers, which can then spark a quarrel rooted in an unrelated but much-larger matter such as competition or power; though these disagreements seem like they came out of nowhere, they’re actually deeply rooted in the past.

There’s research showing that couples tend to fall in to fairly predictable traps when dealing with conflict.

By understanding that the manner in which conflict escalates is generally predictable, we can learn to replace knee-jerk emotional responses with more tempered thoughts. Having a good set of rules in place can also help to head off conflict “It is possible to build behavioural confidence in negotiating conflicts through preparation, good process, and practice,” Movius says. 



– Hal Movius

Not so silent night - be resilient when faced with challenges

2. Be resilient when faced with challenges

Does your family’s unhealthy dynamic feel beyond your capacity to repair this year? If you’ve turned your holiday strategy to one of self-preservation, take heart in the findings of American developmental psychologist Emmy Werner. Werner discovered a key, cultivatable personality trait that allows some individuals with difficult families to manage better than others: resilience.

In the mid-1950s, Warner began a 32-year-long study during which she observed the effects of stress on a group of 700 people, from in-utero to adulthood. She hoped to understand why some people suffer when exposed to hardships, while others seem to flourish despite their circumstances.

The results of her work formed the basis for our modern understanding of resilience. Werner wrote that though not necessarily gifted, people with resilience were able to use “whatever skills they had effectively” to manage the situation they were in rather than letting it manage them. They also displayed what psychologists call an “internal locus of control,” which is a knack for seeing opportunities rather than dead ends. Put simply, resilient people take responsibility for their own destinies—and are really good at making lemonade from lemons

“Are really good at making lemonade from lemons.”

– Emmy Werner

Not so silent night - train your optimism and stick to it

3. Train your optimism

Fortunately, it is possible to train yourself to be more resilient when it comes to family interactions. Positive-psychology researcher Martin Seligman has spent years studying “learned helplessness.” He suggests reframing experiences in order to “unlearn” bad associations.

For example, it helps to think of issues as external rather than internal (“This isn’t my fault”), narrow rather than all- encompassing (“This one bad thing isn’t an indication that the bigger picture is flawed”), and transient rather than inescapable (“I can change this situation—it’s not fixed”). You can’t control your ex’s behaviour, but you can work to keep your own state of mind as proactive and positive as possible in the face of frustrating circumstances.

“I can change this situation — it’s not fixed”

– Martin Seligman

Not so silent night - be proactive and establish some rules you can both accept

4. Be proactive and establish some rules you can both accept.

Put simply, trying to wing it is not the best way to avoid a fight. But if you are preparing yourself for a conflict with your ex over access at Christmas take heart in the fact that there is another way.

Susan Hewitt has been running a collaborative family law and mediation practice for years. She has found that those who sit down and have a formal discussion about how co-parenting will work experience significantly less conflict in the long run. “People who sit down in a controlled environment and establish some simple rules experience significantly less conflict with their ex, whereas people who try to muddle through almost always end up in a big fight.”

Talking about things and establishing guidelines around co-parenting leads to significantly less conflict and happier kids.

Because this year has been so unusual and Covid restrictions have made it especially hard to meet existing parenting obligations Christmas is expected to take on extra significance for those who co-parent. As the border restrictions are relaxed the pressure to travel and see interstate relatives may prove very tempting.

“Even if you have been going along ok, Christmas is a time when arguments can quickly blow up. Children cant be in two places at once so it is impossible for both parents to have them for the whole day.” Susan says.

Mediation is especially effective at giving people a way to express their wants and needs without ending up in conflict.   Mediators are trained to guide people through a simple negotiation process with the aim of coming to an agreement.

“If you can head off trouble by negotiating some simple rules – rules that you can both live with – there is no reason everyone cant have a little Christmas joy.”





“Even if you have been going along ok Christmas is a time when things can quickly blow up”

– Susan Hewitt

Susan is a collaborative lawyer and mediator who believes conflict is not the way

Susan Hewitt is the Principal at Bright Side Family Law, a non-litigious family law and mediation practice. Susan has worked as a lawyer and journalist for almost 30 years. She is an accredited collaborative lawyer and family-law mediator who is committed to helping families through their relationship breakdown in an honest, cooperative and respectful manner.

If you are facing a family law or parenting matter call, message or email BrightSide

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