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When Family Conflict Ruins Holiday Celebrations

QUESTION: My two adult children are not on speaking terms with each other. Both would like to come to my home for the holidays -- with their children. What should I do?

ANSWER: Families do not always live up to our expectations of how members should behave or treat one another. When our visions of harmonious family holiday gatherings become splintered by family conflicts, we may become sad or or angry. But unrealistic expectations and pressure to be in harmony may also bear a part of the blame! Making room for disagreement in family relationships allows members to remain connected even through disappointment and conflict, rather than breaking apart.

What you should do in this situation depends on what you want and what level of effort you are willing to give toward making that happen. If you would like to invite both your children and their families over for a holiday celebration, by all means tell them so. Ask your children separately whether it would be possible to gather together this holiday. Be clear that they would have to rise above their differences and that you know this is difficult, but what is the alternative?

Do they anticipate being permanently cut off forever? Or could they find some place in between, in which they agree temporarily to stay away from tense topics and simply accept the fact that they are both members of the same family? Suggest that they offer the olive branch to each other in order for them and their children to be able to come together in your home for a celebration.

Ask them both to step up to the plate and take responsibility for finding a way to accept their differences -- to agree to disagree -- and, at least for one occasion, to call an end to the silent treatment. Clarify realistic expectations. Make it clear that you do not expect them to love each other -- or even like each other -- at this point! You would expect simply that they act respectfully and face the fact that they are siblings, a fact that will not alter with their withdrawal from each other.

This would be a truce, not a transformation. It is the first step toward accepting discord in family relationships, rather than allowing it to tear families apart. Do not pressure them to create a family "myth" of togetherness. Instead, make your goal this holiday season a healthy tolerance for difference! Being able to live with differences is one sign of health in family relationships.

You have nothing to lose by asking. And by doing so, you are highlighting the untenability of remaining forever silent with each other. Be careful not to take "sides" or blame either one for the rift. Instead, simply state your own desire clearly for having one family celebration that includes all of your grandchildren and their parents.

If they both agree, keep the celebration short to increase the likelihood that it will be a success rather than a failure. And be prepared to carry out an alternative plan, if necessary.

If your children continue to be entrenched in their conflict, consider what the next best thing would be for you. Would you like to invite them over for separate celebrations? Is it possible, or desirable, for the grandchildren to come together for a kids-and-grandparents celebration, without their parents present? Or attend a holiday movie or play together? After all, why should the grandchildren lose one another because their parents are on strike from family contact?

Suggesting such alternatives to your children clarifies the impact on the next generation. It may inspire reflection, instead of retaliation. Although your children may not succeed in coming together this year, perhaps by next holiday season they will benefit from considering your perspective.

Express your voice in the family, but don't expect warmth and affection from members who feel coolly towards one another. Instead, focus on tolerating differences and accepting the fact of connection that exists as a part of family history. Do not impose guilt, but do point out the effects of their choices on the next generation.

Although you have a right to your vision of family harmony, you will have to accept the present reality. Rather than succumb to depression, change your own expectations. Reflect that your children's separation from each other is unrealistic, and at the same time hold out reasonable expectations for ways in which the family can relate at this point in time. A realistic approach may prove a powerful combination in bringing your family together again.

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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