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Image by Katherine Chase


Face it or Flee?

by Maureen Pollard,

Emotional Health Editor

Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW is a registered social worker with a private practice in Cobourg, Ontario.  Visit her online at:

Conflict happens. People have different experiences, opinions or beliefs and it can lead to arguments about who is “right”. This can happen in any relationship, and families are no exception.

As we move into a season when we may find ourselves spending more time with family, the pain of old patterns and the fear of new fights can find us feeling less excited about being together. You don’t have to keep falling into old habits. Here are some strategies that can help you reduce conflict:

Practice being calm. Prepare yourself ahead of time with reassuring self-talk. Experiment with intentional breathing strategies so that on the day of the visit your body easily remembers how to take a deep, calming breath. Try to keep your voice low and even as you talk with others.

Predict patterns and plan ahead. Is there something that happens every year that sets off an argument? Think of ways to avoid that situation and see if you can interrupt the pattern of falling into the same old fights.

Be curious about why people act the way they do. People are always trying to get their needs met. What are the actions of your family members telling you? Maybe they’re feeling overwhelmed by something, or maybe they’re just repeating behaviour they learned from the way they were treated when they were small. When you understand more about their reasons, you may find yourself less angry about how they’re acting.

Use “I statements” to address problems.  Start by saying something like “I feel hurt when you yell at me.” Try to be specific about the behaviour without blaming the person or being mean. Just let them know how you feel when they do certain things, and see if it helps them think about their actions in a different way.

Stay respectful. Even when you feel disrespected, do your best to engage with manners. If you’ve done something to contribute to the problem, own it. Apologize when needed and make a serious effort to do better.

Limit your exposure. If conflict is a regular part of family gatherings and you’re ready to try some of these strategies but you’re not sure if they’ll work, set a limit on how long you’ll stay. Similarly, if there are a lot of gatherings, you may decide to attend just a few.

Keep yourself safe. Sometimes conflict becomes abusive and dangerous. You don’t have to accept anyone yelling and swearing at you, calling you names or putting you down. If these things happen, if the fight becomes physical, or even seems like it might, you can leave to keep yourself safe.


Every family argues from time to time. Feelings get hurt, tensions rise and we can fall into habits of disagreement. In a healthy situation, we can try to understand what happened and make changes to prevent hurting the ones we love. While you can’t make anyone else change, you just might have an impact by trying these strategies to adjust your own behaviour to reduce the conflict.

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