How to Manage Family Dynamics at Christmas

By Relationships Australia

The holiday season can bring with it connection and joy – but also family challenges. Here, we put forward some tips to help you manage family dynamics over the upcoming festive period.

The holiday season is a tricky time for many families as they navigate issues such as separation and conflict, with the added pressure to have a picture-perfect break.

Luckily, there are practical strategies you can put in place to make the holiday season less stressful and more enjoyable.

Check your expectations

Social media can make it seem as though everyone is having an amazing time with their family over the holidays. However, it only shows a tiny part of our lives – usually the happy, shiny parts – and is often not an accurate representation of our overall experience.

That’s why it’s important to check that you have realistic expectations of your family and the holiday season. If you expect your family and Christmas to be exactly how it’s portrayed in festive films or commercials, you’ll probably be disappointed. Humans are flawed beings, and relationships don’t have to be ideal in order to be valuable.

“Remind yourself regularly that the picture of the ‘perfect’ Christmas that media and society has created is impossible to replicate in real life – and that’s okay. Just like the Brady Bunch, it is not real.”

Counsellor at Relationships Australia NSW, Sandra Martel-Acworth

Remind yourself that you and your family are ‘perfectly imperfect’, complete with strengths and weaknesses. You can still enjoy Christmas even if it isn’t exactly what you had in mind.

Set boundaries and prepare answers to unwanted questions

Ahead of a big family event such as Christmas Day, have a think about what you will and won’t tolerate, and how you might handle difficult situations if they arise. If you know one family member usually acts in a problematic way, prepare for how you’ll respond.

For example, if your brother-in-law often gets drunk and asks inappropriate questions, you might think through some responses in advance. You could say something like ‘I don’t want to talk about that right now,’ and have some ideas for changing the topic of conversation. You might set other boundaries, such as limiting time you spend with certain people, or choosing to sit next to relatives you feel comfortable with.

You could have a mantra to say to yourself throughout the day if someone is getting on your nerves, such as ‘this behaviour isn’t about me.’ You also have the right to step away from conversations or behaviour that crosses your boundaries.

Sandra suggests you try and channel your polite but firm conversation skills. “Sometimes Christmas is about compromise and meeting halfway,” she explains. “Lean in and empathise if someone finds your position difficult to accept – but hold your position.”

Sometimes it can also help to own how you are feeling and ask for what you need. “If you are not travelling so well, explain this and let others know what you think you can and can’t manage,” she says. Ultimately, it’s important to remember to be kind to yourself.

Focus on what you can control

You are only responsible for your own behaviour – it’s impossible to control what other family members do and say. Unless we are parenting kids, other people’s behaviour is not our responsibility.

If someone is behaving in a negative or upsetting way, take a moment to think about how you will respond rather than getting caught up in a heated situation. Ask yourself: ‘If I say this or behave like this, how will I feel about it later?’

Validate your own emotions throughout the day by saying phrases to yourself such as, ‘It makes sense that I’m feeling frustrated by my sister’s actions’ and ‘I will get through today’.

Something you may have some control over is the schedule of family gatherings that you host. “Try building in time-out,” says Sandra. “You may need to channel your inner rebel and challenge the ‘perfect’ Christmas image of everyone having to be together all the time.”

She suggests you build in walks and activities that get the dopamine flowing and allow yourself some time to self-soothe if you are struggling. You could even break some gatherings into smaller, shorter events if some family gatherings are likely to be stressful.

Choose a ‘check in’ buddy

Aim to have at least one trusted person, such as a partner, friend, family member or mental health professional, that you can check in with after the day. Sharing your feelings and challenges with others and debriefing after the event can make a big difference to how you feel.

It can help you process the experience and will make you feel more supported. Don’t forget humour either – venting and laughing about things with a good friend can put things in perspective, and help you realise that almost everyone faces their own challenges in one way or another.

If you know these family events can stir up more serious negative feelings though, consider booking in a therapy session with a mental health professional. You could also call a helpline such as Lifeline (13 11 14), Parent Line (1300 1300 52) or Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) if you need more immediate support. If you are concerned about unhealthy, abusive or violent relationships, call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).

Be an observer

It can be helpful to act as an ‘observer’ in challenging family situations or events. When you find yourself getting caught up in family dynamics, take a step back and observe the situation with curiosity.

Pay attention to your own emotions and try to be accepting of them. Think about what you appreciate about each person and consider why they might be behaving the way they are. This isn’t the same thing as excusing their poor behaviour or ignoring the personal boundaries you have set. But trying to be empathetic and seeking to understand what makes someone tick can help us be more patient with them. It can also help you not take things personally, even if you don’t see eye to eye.

The holiday season can be challenging for many reasons. But by checking your expectations, setting boundaries, focusing on what you can control and practising mindful observing, you can get through Christmas with a little more ease.

If you are finding navigating your family dynamics difficult, consider seeing a family counsellor at Relationships Australia NSW. Family counselling provides families with a space to explore difficulties, hear each other’s perspectives, rebuild trust and strengthen relationships.

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