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Surviving Family Holidays

Are you dreading Christmas because of difficult relatives or uncomfortable family situations? We share practical strategies to help you cope with the upcoming holidays:

Practical coping strategies

Create an atmosphere of calm by remaining present and settled as you set up the event.

Stay active; get up and down from the table to disengage from the intensity of it all.

Don’t make eye contact with difficult members.

Focus on your own breath when difficult members fire up.

Diffuse the energy of the gathering; have it outdoors if you can.

Don’t concentrate the energy around a table — have a more casual barbecue where people get up and down as they please.

Have it in neutral, public territory, such as a restaurant.


Emotional coping strategies

Be realistic; expect the worst.

Work through your own issues before you go.

Focus on managing your own emotional state on the day.

Feed difficult family members food, not your own energy.

Treat it as a psychological field trip. Observe the “natives” from a distance.

Be a compassionate observer; remember you’re not perfect, either!

Have your partner coach/remind/support you not to get triggered.

It’s that time of the year again. People start lining up outside psychologists’ offices, scrambling for a last-minute appointment. No, it’s not the onset of some contagious mental illness. It’s the dreaded family Christmas dinner that has people fighting for their turn on the therapist’s couch.

What’s all the angst for? A meal, a few drinks, some presents and you’re away again. What could be so bad? What’s so bad is that Christmas brings up all the family issues that are forgotten during the rest of the year. These things can easily disappear in the scramble of a hectic modern life. Those who wish to can usually avoid family get-togethers with excuses of children’s sport, work commitments and house renovations. But at Christmas time, excuses run out. It’s time to front up!


The trouble starts with decisions about whose relatives to go to for which meal. Christmas lunch has more cachet than Christmas dinner, so who will win out? It might seem simple to take turns, but how will that work in with the brothers and sisters who will also be taking turns with their partners? The rest of your family may be getting together for lunch, but it’s your turn for dinner. How do you co-ordinate it all? People get hangover headaches weeks before the day arrives.


It helps to bring a humorous perspective to the festive proceedings. Imagine your family is the cast of some Chevy Chase Christmas movie. What would it look like? How would it play out? It can be easier to laugh at it all from this perspective. A lighthearted approach will help you survive the day and help prevent you adding to any family misery.


Christmas is about gift giving, but we don’t have to be literal about this. Our presence at the family Christmas is a gift. The quality of our presence is an even bigger contribution. If we can bring compassion and an attitude of generosity and acceptance, we add to the spirit of the day. It is our best protection from family angst and guaranteed hangover-free.


How do you survive family holidays at this time of year?


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