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Five Steps Divorced Parents Can Take to Cool Down Holiday Conflict

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by Lorraine Segal

We all have idealized images of the holiday season–perfect gifts and the warm glow of togetherness. But the gap between expectations and reality can be huge when parents are recently divorced, and grief, anger, and bitterness can intensify holiday stress. Your ex can seem particularly impossible to communicate with, and every conversation emotionally triggering.

Whatever you call these reactions– triggers, hot buttons, hooks–you know when your ex says or does something that “makes” you freeze in fear or hit the roof in anger. It is possible, however, to “cool down” these hot buttons, improve your conversations, and increase your holiday serenity in the process.

Here are 5 steps for cooling down holiday-intensified triggers.

Identify your hot buttons. We can’t change our response to hot buttons unless we know what they are. So, we start by thinking of a situation where your ex pushed your hot button. What did s/he do or say that set you off? Think about the facts (what happened or what was said) and feelings (how you felt, reacted.)
Now what? Unfortunately, other people generally won’t stop pushing our buttons once we’ve uncovered them, even if we ask nicely. So, I recommend steps 2-5.

Step 2 Tell your own story.

The next step is to understand the story you are telling yourself about what your ex’s intent was and what he/she thinks of you. This often involves some variation of your belief that he or she must think you are unimportant, incompetent, stupid, unlikable, or unworthy or a bad parent.

These internal stories are hurtful, and give hot buttons some of their power.

Step 3 Explore your underlying emotions (backstory).

Our childhood and earlier adult experiences are the true source of the intensity for current hot buttons. If your ex’s words or actions remind you of earlier hurtful events in your marriage or with other family members, or if the situation seems to repeat a negative pattern you’ve experienced somewhere before, you will probably react to the sum of all of those incidences, not simply to the present trigger. Looking at these past patterns increases your conscious awareness and understanding of what’s fueling your intense responses.

Step 4 Imagine a different story

After we become aware of the story we are telling ourselves, the next step to imagine a different story. This could mean shifting our vision to enter the other person’s perspective or changing our self-story for the better. You have a story you tell yourself and others about your ex, what you blame him/her for, why he/she is wrong, and how this fits into holiday issues.

But your ex most likely has a completely different story about your relationship and what happened. Can you step out of your narrative and imagine how they would tell this story? Can you find a more benevolent interpretation of what they said, did, or want–even if you don’t think it’s true?

Step 5 Change your response (Act as if)

The final step is to change your response; in effect, to unhook the hot button. Assume for a minute that the interpretation or positive aspect you investigated or invented in step 4 is correct. Then, use this perspective to slow down and change your response.

It takes willingness, courage, practice, and support to make these changes in how you respond. But even if you’re sure your ex is criticizing or obstructing you, choosing to act as if the better story is true can help you detach, communicate calmly, and stay serene and self-loving during the holidays.


“Tips to Start Co-Parenting after Divorce”, visit

Developing Your Conflict Competence—Craig Runde & Tim Flanagan

Difficult Conversations; How to Discuss What Matters Most–Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen

Radical Collaboration—James Tamm & Ronald Luyet

“Hot Buttons: Five Simple Steps Guaranteed to Cool Them Down”-Lorraine Segal


Lorraine Segal, M.A., has her own Sonoma County conflict & forgiveness coaching, mediation, and training business, Conflict Remedy, based in Santa Rosa, California. She also teaches in Sonoma State University’s Conflict Resolution certificate program and leads communication skills workshops and webinars on forgiveness, co-parenting skills, and communication. She specializes in transforming communication for divorced parents.

She has presented face to face or via teleseminar for ACR, ADRHub, Women’s Global Leadership Institute, local non profits and schools. Her coaching and mediation services are available by telephone as well as face to face. Her blog and more information about her and her services are available at

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