Campus News

Tighten your family’s ties during the holidays

As friends and relatives prepare to gather, a School of Social Work expert on families shares tips on taking a fresh approach to improving relationships, even when touchy topics arise.

Illustration of a people around a dinner table holding hands.
(Illustration by Leighann Vinesett/UNC-Chapel Hill)

In an episode of the classic sitcom “All in the Family,” Mike “Meathead” Stivic counsels a guest on holiday dinner conversation: “Steer clear of any subjects that might cause friction like politics, religion, sex … ,” he says, and, with a resigned look, slowly continues, “ … books, movies.”

Add to that list hot topics such as COVID-19 vaccinations and masks, and family gatherings are fraught with possible friction.

This holiday season, with many families gathering for the first time since 2019, it’s important to look for ways to avoid disagreements and improve relationships, says Todd Jensen, a research associate in the Jordan Institute for Families and a research assistant professor in the School of Social Work.

Todd Jensen

Todd Jensen

Given how the pandemic has affected families, Jensen says that it’s helpful to remember that families often work together and rely on each other to make it through tough times. Jensen cites the work of Froma Walsh, a University of Chicago professor and expert on family resilience, who developed a framework for assessing a family’s ability to handle bad times. Walsh’s work focuses on three core areas of strength that increase a family’s ability to take on challenges:

  • A shared belief system that includes things such as finding mutual meaning in adversity and engaging in a positive outlook together.
  • Organizational processes such as how family members band together to meet adversity, adapt to change, lend mutual support, call on friends, neighbors and peers, and use and share money.
  • Communication, including how family members talk to each other, freedom to speak honestly and clearly and to express emotions in ways that can be received constructively.

Thinking about the shared beliefs, processes and communication within one’s family or group prior to gathering will be important. “Consider how to spend time together with humility and with empathy and an acknowledgement that folks are coming together with different needs and public health concerns,” Jensen says. “Is there a family member who has an infant with a developing immune system or who lives with someone whose health is compromised? They’re likely worried about that.”

The pandemic has weakened shared beliefs or exposed rifts in some families. Still, it is likely that more and more people will be open to getting together with safe guidelines in place, Jensen says. “As families come back together, we can ask each other, ‘How can we renegotiate some things in ways that are mutually satisfying? How can we come together with a shared understanding of what we want to accomplish as a family?’ It might serve us well to reflect on these things ahead of time.”

Having empathy for each other is important in any case, Jensen adds. “Think of creative ways to help others feel included, while respecting their very real desires to keep the people they love safe.”

Valuing the same things

When hot-button topics do arise, family members have an opportunity to try something new.

“Say you have a family member who’s on one end of things politically or ideologically, and they want to debate because you’re on the other side,” Jensen says. In such situations, family members may treat each other as adversaries. When that happens, Jensen advises calling a preemptive cease-fire to consider how much family members generally care about and value the same things.

“At the end of the day, we want to be happy and healthy, take care of each other and be together. We want to enjoy each other’s time and company,” Jensen says. “There’s much more that brings us together that we share in common and value together. Start with that mindset.”

Don’t be defensive or stonewall

Sitting down with family or a group of friends can instantly bring up defenses in preparation for imagined conflicts.

Defensiveness in conversations, Jensen says, has been found in research by University of Washington psychologist John Gottman, to tear down relationships over time. “Instead of approaching things defensively, find within ourselves an ability to be self-assured, calm and willing to take in information that might differ from information we might offer. That can be a recipe for good conversation, and it will invite that other person to do the same thing. If we put our guard up, it’s likely others are going to put their guards up,” Jensen says.

Another top toxin to good relationships is stonewalling, Jensen says, so try not to persistently withdraw or avoid a person.

Re-imagining and the power of one person

As the pandemic wanes, families can use holiday time to begin re-imagining how they want to operate and how they want to be with each other. Jensen says that the pandemic has allowed “a lot of us to take stock and assess the value of our relationships and other things in our lives that we likely took for granted.” Such assessment can help start a re-imagining.

“That could be a powerful mindset to bring into the holidays when families convene,” Jensen says.

“Don’t forget that there has been an extended period of time with a lot of uncertainty, likely some fear. And as we’re coming back together over time, let’s hold on to the value of our relationships. Let’s re-energize ourselves in thinking about how these relationships can be as healthy and rewarding as possible.”

What if a gathering disintegrates into arguments and unkindness?

“Families are systems, and they’re greater than the sum of their parts,” Jensen says. “Changes that one person makes in that system can reverberate across the entire system. If you come into these interactions with empathy and with a desire to really show up genuinely and authentically with love and support for other family members, that will be felt.”