From the Edmonton Sun, Dec. 19, 2009


Season's Screaming
What to do when family fueds present themselves during holiday festivities


Deck the halls -- and not your big-shot, boastful brother.

    As the dysfunctional Christmas cast gathers, you can bet there'll be more than one turkey at Christmas dinner!

    Obligatory holiday get togethers can often bring out the worst in people. Forget peace and joy. The highly-charged season can be a source of anxiety, even dread, for many family members, agree experts. Family feuds can flourish during the holidays and home fronts become battlefields.

    "Not uncommonly, grown people return home to their families and, in short order, are reduced to the sniveling pathetic children the people around them once believed they were, all over again," says Dr. Rick Kirschner.

    "All it takes is a visit home, and many perfectly sane adults are reduced to the miserable clods of ailments and grievances their relatives are already convinced they are. That's because your relatives intentionally or accidentally know just where the buttons are and how to push them," says Kirschner, speaker and author of Dealing With the People You Can't Stand.

    And someone takes the bait! Don't count on anyone keeping a level head or heart. "You can take the 'kids' out of the family patterns, but harder to take patterns out of the family," agrees life coach Deborah Mecklinger. When back home, regardless of age, people tend to revert back to prescribed rules, roles and expectations.

    Holidays are a time of extreme stress -- emotional, financial, familial, social, physical -- emotions are heightened and behaviours are typically exaggerated. "The holiday get-together is like 'Family Dynamics on Steroids'," says Mecklinger, of

    According to therapist Heather McKechnie, life, stress and unresolved issues amongst family members seem to arise during the holidays "due to a perception that everyone should be loving and happy towards each other whether they feel that way on not."

    People may feel a need to compete with other family members over gifts, where families get together Dec. 25 or Boxing Day and who can host the best dinner, she says.

    "Alcohol can also be a factor that worries people if someone in the family has a drinking problem or anger issues that may surface after drinks. Jealousy arises over who gets the best gift, who has been the most successful, who Mom or Dad love best, etcetera. The list can go on and on," says McKechnie, adding "this doesn't occur in all families or even some families all the time."

    According to Kirschner, families can easily become a battleground of projections. "Families are like small towns -- secrets are hard to keep, and earning respect is more difficult than with strangers and friends."

    Familiarity breeds contempt, due to the damage done from years of having emotional reactions to each other, says Kirschner, of And family members can easily trigger each other into habitual reactions.

    Also, family members may feel threatened by their own sense of failure to fulfill their own good intentions, too. "You try so hard to please, and that person doesn't notice, or express gratitude in the way you want."

    And he adds that whatever it is you don't like about that family member is often what you don't like in yourself. "Whenever you're threatened by someone else's behaviour, that represents a part of yourself that you haven't accepted."

    Economic difficulties also tend to bring out the worst in people in general, and this year has been doozy. "In a typical year, we move about in a sea of upbeat messages about joy and peace that is often out of sync with the reality of life," says Kirschner. "And this year, because of the bad economy, the constant cajoling to buy gifts as a way of showing we care about people provokes and aggravates people who may be struggling to get by and are already spent beyond their means."

    Plus personal and intrusive questions about finances may exacerbate the frenzy. "In reaction, they may fight back their inner fears by overcompensating, or succumb to it by diminishing themselves. Nothing makes a person as explosive or boastful as low self esteem."

    If someone looks for a fight, they will find one, adds McKechnie. "If people check their own behaviour and treat others in the way that they wish to be treated, many stresses can be avoided."