The most common family arguments at Christmas and how to avoid them

Does YOUR family spend Christmas arguing? Psychotherapist reveals what’s behind the 5 most common rows, from spending too much on presents to feeling unappreciated – and how to avoid them

  • Relationship expert and psychotherapist Neil Wilkie shared common family rows
  • He explained why seemingly innocuous actions can spark furious arguments
  • Often lack of communication and connection leaves people feeling rejected 
  • Offered advice on avoiding rows on Christmas Day or how to diffuse situation 

For those of us lucky enough to be spending this Christmas out of isolation, spending some much-needed time with our loved ones is sure to be the highlight of the festive season. 

But in every family, the pressure of hosting the day, an excess of booze and resentment over stingy gifts can cause all that goodwill and festive cheer to rapidly disappear.  

Psychotherapist Neil Wilkie, who is the author of the Relationship Paradigm book series, shared the five most common types of argument families have on Christmas Day and how to avoid them. 

He explained that seemingly innocuous actions like scrolling through your phone or leaving your shoes by the door can create a huge amount of tension which quickly leads to an explosive row. 

‘Christmas can be a real powder keg where overwrought expectations and disappointments collide, creating an explosion of pent-up frustration’, he said. 

Here, FEMAIL reveals the most common arguments that families have during the festive period, and advice on making sure you have a calm and relaxed Christmas Day. 

Psychotherapist Neil Wilkie, author of the Relationship Paradigm book series, shared with FEMAIL the five most common types of argument families have on Christmas Day (stock image)

Looking after the immediate environment: ‘You’re too messy’

These are often about different priorities and different values. For example, a teenager may just want to enter the house and get on with their phone conversation or computer game. 

By the front door is the obvious place to leave shoes as they are the shortest distance to travel and are easy to find. They can’t understand why their parents moan about this as they feel that they are doing no wrong.

For the parent it is often a resonance from their childhood, and it is about showing respect for each other as well as ‘I spent years working and saving to pay for this house and expect my children to value this’. 

A pair of shoes randomly left in the hall rather than in the expensive shoe rack in the utility room is, in effect, saying ‘I don’t care about you, I am disrespecting all your hard work and have very different values’.

Sharing the burden: ‘You don’t help around the house’

How to avoid arguments and overcome them if they occur 

How to avoid arguments on Christmas Day:

  • Take responsibility for your own feelings and be aware of your own red buttons
  • Accept that there is no reality in these situations; only perceptions and each person is likely to have a different perception.
  • Something over 60% of disagreements between couples are never resolved, so there is no perfect solution.
  • Also ask yourself: Do you want to be right or happy?
  • Pause between stimulus and response

How to avoid arguments in the future:  

  • Create time where you can talk and listen to each other, free of interruptions
  • If you sense that they are not happy, ask them how they are feeling.
  • Have a weekly ‘state of the union’ meeting where you can all share three good things that you have noticed between you in the last week and one thing that could be improved.
  • Deal with perceived problems quickly and openly; don’t sweep them under the carpet
  • If something is annoying you, such as shoes piled up by the front door, explain how this is making you feel

How to overcome them if an argument breaks out:  

  • If you are feeling activated, press your pause button and say you will come back and continue the discussion in at least 20 minutes, when you have calmed down.
  • If someone else is getting activated, suggest they do the same.
  • Listen to what they are saying and try and understand their perspective.
  • Ask them how they are feeling about the issue and keep focusing on the feelings rather than the symptoms.
  • Once they have finished, summarise what you have heard and say that you understand their perspective (but you don’t have to agree)
  • Then talk about ways in which this could be resolved and agree actions

This is about the perceived unfairness about one having to do more work to keep the household going. One or both parents may feel that they are the one who ‘always loads the dishwasher’ or is ‘the only one that puts the washing on’.

It is also about role conflict and imbalance where one is feeling that there has become a master – servant relationship. This will create dissonance where a parent feels that they are working hard and the ‘lazy ungrateful child is living a life of luxury’. 

This sometimes comes about because the parent had a childhood where they felt taken advantage of by their parents and do not want their children to suffer the same.

Boundaries need to be set at an early age so that all members of the family feel that they are working as part of a team with a shared purpose.

Connection with each other: ‘You’re always on your phone’

Connection is an essential part of a healthy relationship. If a parent feels that an inanimate object is getting more attention than them, this will create resentment. 

If attempts to connect such as ‘how was your day’ get responded to with a grunt, then they will feel rejected.  

Research shows that for every negative response to a bid for connection there need to be at least six positive responses. Too many grunts will mean the ‘us bank account’ will be in severe overdraft.

Communication: ‘You’re not listening to me’

I am trying to talk to you about something important and you are looking at your phone, watching TV or finding a million other things that are more interesting. 

What does that say about how important I am in your life? This will make the one wanting to be listened to feel upset and of little value in their life. 

The attempts to communicate will then become much more pointed and may become sharp pointed complaints rather than conversations, because at least those will be heard.

Financial: ‘You’ve wasted our money’

Money and what it is spent on is a perpetual source of conflict amongst families, even amongst the very rich! 

People often want more than they have and believe that buying stuff will create happiness. The truth is that there is always a bigger diamond, a newer Ferrari or another X box game.

It is inevitable that everyone in a family will have different dreams, desires and priorities as well as attaching different meanings to buying ‘stuff’. To one person, the dopamine hit of buying the latest iPhone will be worth the three years of repayments. To another this will be a tragic waste of money.

Money in families is where dreams and values collide and create dissonance.

Why do these issues turn into arguments?   

These arguments normally happen because the underlying feelings are not discussed calmly.

Each person will have a different perspective on the situation and will not understand the perspective of others.

What happens is that the resentments fester and then explode as a personal attack on the other person. They will automatically go onto the defensive, the arguments will escalate, with all parties getting activated into fight, flight or freeze mode where listening and rationality dissipate. This means that nothing will get resolved.  

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