Many of us can face trouble and strife over the holidays. Family gatherings make room at the dinner table not just for the tinsel and the turkey, but for the family tantrums as well — and you know I’m not just talking about the junior family members either!
We may look forward to this annual opportunity to spend quality time with our family, play board games and pass around the tin of treats, but when someone places a Monopoly hotel on Mayfair, there is potential for all hell to break loose! No one seems to be spared from a dose of good old festive family trauma.
Dr. Leonard Felder, the author of When Difficult Relatives Happen To Good People, explains “In most family situations there will always be some complicating factors and some difficult relatives to keep things interesting.”
Tinsel, turkey and tantrums
The family festive house arrest can inevitably result in a battlefield of emotions producing a house full of tears amongst the bruised satsumas and the Quality Street chocolates left at the bottom of the tin.
We dream and expect the holidays to entail evenings sat by the fire, watching “It’s a Wonderful Life’, sipping mulled wine with roasted chestnuts. But let’s face it, it’s not until you have lost a gift, misplaced the bumper pack of Sellotape, dropped and broken a piece of the posh crystal, cried into the pan of an undercooked turkey and burnt the bread sauce, that you can truly appreciate the miracle of the holidays! Is it me or is no holiday festivity complete without a full-on holiday meltdown and family showdown at some point?
When you think about it, by the time December 25th rolls around, many of us are already reaching our absolute boiling point, yet somehow we fail to go easy on ourselves.
The weeks leading up to the holidays have me sweating and swearing my way around the shopping mall to buy the gifts, writing and tackling the dreaded arm-length grocery list, and attending the festive parties along with the kid’s school holiday concert and fundraising craft nights. A friend and I have affectionately termed this annual meltdown moment as ‘The Christmas cry” — pass me the Shiraz!
What’s your holiday family script?
I may think my crew resemble something from a Bing Crosby festive special, but on reflection, they veer pretty close to something from Chevy Chase’s National Lampoon Christmas Vacation!
I can pretty much write the script of what happens over my holiday family table. I can tell you who will be sulking and sat in silence staring at the brussel sprouts and I can tell you which one will be overcompensating for their sombre vibe! I can tell you who will turn to the table wine to get them through the get-together and who will turn up to the table, already three sheets to the wind! We’re all human, yet we all expect so much of ourselves and of others.
“A common reason people get angry and hurt by the obnoxious behaviour of their family member is because they believe that the misbehaviour or abrasive personality of their relative is a direct reflection on them. “
So, if you have your own family script for the holidays, and anticipate feelings of tension that all families experience to some degree, then join me in loading up these quick-fire tips to help manage the troublesome family holiday shenanigans.
“Even if you can’t change your relatives, you can significantly change and improve how you respond to them.”
Toolbelt tips and tricks
- Be realistic with your expectations.
If your relatives tend to fight throughout the year, they will most likely fight over the holidays too. Remember, it’s okay for it not to be okay and recognize what you can’t control.
2. Limit your time together.
If your family enjoys some pre-drinks with a 2-hour festive lunch together, then stick to that magic formula. Adding some post-dinner games and a chat while the kids play in the basement, may sound lovely but could leave room for some unnecessary conflict. Set yourself up for success and stick to what works.
3. Appreciate everyone’s stress level and circumstances.
Try to have compassion for everyone’s situation, e.g. One relative may be anxious because they overspent on their credit cards. One relative may have worked overtime to get everything done before their office closed for Christmas — and consequently feels exhausted. Strive to be as understanding as you can of people’s situations.
4. Consider breaking up the celebrations to keep apart the friction.
For example, you could see one group of relatives on Christmas Eve and another on Christmas Day. Scheduling manageable amounts of time with family can make all the difference with your coping strategies.
5. Be proactive and arrange a family activity.
Family members involved in after-lunch activities (such as a walk in the fresh air, a run around in the snow or a board game) are less likely to get into arguments. Plan for something to do as a group after lunch if necessary.
6. Take some time to chill
Use relaxation techniques, distraction and group activities to help steer around stressful situations. There is nothing wrong with making an excuse to pop out to the car to fetch something if, in fact, you need 10 minutes of fresh air to stop you challenging Uncle Frank on his political points of view.
7. Ease up on the alcohol
It’s tempting to just reach for the table wine but the reduced inhibitions could contribute to, or cause, an unnecessary argument. Alternate the non-alcoholic drinks with the festive tipples and you’re set to make better decisions using filtered responses to the controversial family conversation.
8. Don’t forget your sense of humour.
If you sense some friction in the air, share a funny story or suggest watching a festive comedy show to alleviate the tension in the air. Laughter is proven to reduce tension and stress in the body.
9. Be aware and prepare.
For the week leading up to your holiday gathering, I think it’s worth taking a few minutes each day to review your self-confidence and true values. Know that if a family member delivers an insult, your core confidence will be unshakable — keeping you safe and intact.
“Dealing with family issues is a lifelong process of learning and discovery. But it’s definitely worth the effort, as future generations will be better off because each step you take to improve the level of respect and compassion among your relatives.”
We made it!
Check the ‘festive family gathering’ off your list. The biggest thing we can do to tackle the holiday family showdown is look after ourselves and be mindful of our own mental health. Take a moment to congratulate yourself for managing the situation with utmost dignity and poise. Now, with everyone falling asleep on the sofa, many of us could be fooled into wanting to do it all over again!
Felder, Leonard Dr. When Difficult Relatives Happen To Good People — Surviving your family and keeping your sanity. Rodale International, 2003.