How to Reduce Family Drama this Holiday Season

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By Sarah Elliston


Sarah H. Elliston, author of “Lessons from a Difficult Person – How to Deal With People Like Us”, shares strategies to reduce family drama during the holiday season on Big Blend Radio.

The holidays we celebrate in the month of December are breeding grounds for drama and trauma.  Anxiety grows from pressure to provide the best of everything.  Disputes stealthily emerge generating tension and disagreements. 

John Grisham wrote a story, “Skipping Christmas,” that identifies all the frustrations of the season where the protagonist and his wife decide that this year they won’t celebrate the holiday since their children will be elsewhere.  There is pressure from their neighborhood and pressure from family, friends and colleagues. They resist that entire process in humorous and heartening ways until the children decide to come home and are eagerly looking forward to all the decorations, food and holiday events.  Christmas isn’t skipped.

What can we learn from this?  Let’s decide what we really, really want from our holidays. 


Step One:

Ask the others in your immediate group how they would like to celebrate this year and listen to their responses. Make a list of all the items.   Allow everyone to be heard.  No criticism.  Listen for the positive, even if the statement is negative. 

For example,” I don’t want to go to Aunt Tabitha’s party.  There’s no one my age and her food sucks.” 

The positive here is: Let’s go to parties with people we know and food we like. List “parties we want to attend.” 

Encourage each other.  Laughter is fine. Critical personal comments are not fine.  Enjoy the process while avoiding sarcasm and judgment.

Look for positive points that your family members are making. 


Step Two:

Go over the list and try to include everything.  Discuss each item until you identify the essence of it and then look for commonalities.  Then synthesize them into a list of 10 or 12 items.  You could create “Parties We Want to Attend” as an item and later distinguish the children parties from the adult parties. 

Have each person take ten slips of paper and write one of the agreed-upon items on each slip.  Have each person take their slips and place them on the table in a ladder of how important each is to them, from the most important to the least important. (Hint, bottom rung of the ladder is the one you want to do the least or not at all)

For example, in the first three choices:

A mythical Dad lays out:  

  1. Going to the tree farm as a family to cut down a tree.
  2. Having all the close relatives for brunch on Christmas day.
  3. Attending the Christmas Eve midnight service.

We can pretend his son John, age 14, has:

  1. A friend’s party.
  2. Sleeping late on Christmas morning.
  3. Is the tree farm. 

Mythical Mom choses:

  1. The Christmas Eve service.
  2. Sleeping late on Christmas morning.
  3. Three is holiday decorating together.

11-year-old Julie choses:

  1. Sitting with her friends at the Christmas Eve service.
  2. The tree farm.
  3. Including her best friend at brunch.


Step Three:

Take time for each person to identify and explain the ranking of each item.  Go from person to person with the same rules as before: no criticism and no judgement.  Be surprised at how much similarity you have in your top five. Keep talking and listening; find areas of agreement.

Dad, John and Julie have the tree farm in their top three and Mom doesn’t but she wants to decorate. Maybe Mom could get the decorations ready while the tree is being cut or maybe she’ll decide to go to the farm too. 

The goal is to see if you can agree on the order of importance for the items while allowing for differences.  Watch as areas of agreement emerge. 

If Mom’s number four is Aunt Tabitha’s party but everybody else has it as number ten it probably shouldn’t be on the list. Mom can attend the party but maybe another item will replace the party as an item for the whole family.

Remember, this is lighthearted and fun – no one is judging anyone else’s choices. 



Step Four:

Notice how important people are: family and friends.   We all seek belonging and connection.

I learned this prioritizing process from Dr. Sidney B. Simon, author, speaker and professor emeritus of Values Clarification at University of Massachusetts.  Called a Choice Ladder, it was helpful for my family in planning a trip to Great Britain.  We were disagreeing about where to visit and my husband and son groaned good-naturedly when I suggested this process. 

The conflict swiftly dissipated. We discovered that while Stonehenge was a number one place, loved cousins and relatives were more important than places.  We did visit Stonehenge but we abandoned other “Must Sees” to create space for people. 

We did the Choice Ladder in an afternoon but your family might need time to think about it. What if Aunt Tabitha’s party is the only place certain beloved relatives are seen?  You may need to do some negotiating.  The goal is a sane, no-arguments holiday season with an agreed-upon schedule that satisfies everyone. 


If tension starts to build during the season, stop and do this again.  Find out what has changed and keep looking for areas of agreement. 

Arguments will diminish, relationships will have less stress if you can listen and affirm each other during this process and sustain the same style for the holidays.

John Grisham’s message is that excessive trappings of the holidays are less important than the people we care about.

Follow the steps, allow the process the time it deserves and I guarantee you will have a happier holiday season.

Sarah H. Elliston is the author of “Lessons from a Difficult Person – How to Deal With People Like Us”. She is a faculty member of the William Glasser Institute and is a workshop leader and trainer who is certified in Values Realization, Parent Effectiveness Training and Reality Therapy. For more about Reality Therapy and to read Sarah’s blog, visit



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About the Author:

Sarah H. Elliston is the author of “Lessons from a Difficult Person – How to Deal With People Like Us”. She is a faculty member of the William Glasser Institute and is a workshop leader and trainer who is certified in Values Realization, Parent Effectiveness Training and Reality Therapy.

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