The Family Christmas Survival Guide | The Psychology Company
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The Family Christmas Survival Guide

| The Family Christmas Survival Guide | The Psychology Company

The Family Christmas Survival Guide

I moved to California over six years ago and one of the hardest things about living so far away from where I was born is only seeing family and old friends a couple of times (at best) a year. My parents are flying out for the Christmas break this weekend and I am really excited to be seeing them. I am lucky-my parents are warm, supportive and kind. However, family systems are complex and for many, spending extended time with family during Christmas can bring stress, tension, and old wounds to the surface and my family is no exception to this! If you don’t feel you have a strong family support, Christmas can be a very lonely time but it’s also possible to feel deeply lonely within your family system, especially if you are not really seen by your family. Add to this alcohol, addictions, financial pressure, sugar consumption and the straying into conversations that have high values attached to them we can quickly find ourselves in really risky territory for significant fallouts and ruptures.


Here are some family Christmas survival strategies to help you ( and me) navigate the season with grace and maintain our sanity:


  1. Set Realistic Expectations


Start by accepting that perfection is an illusion. Families are complex, and conflicts may arise. We all long for a certain kind of interaction with our family-to have fun, be seen, validated, respected. Acknowledge these longings and bring compassion to the fact that these longings may never be met. Parents may also yearn for a certain kind of get together that isn’t realistic-maybe it’s based on nostalgia or having more power in the past than they do now or just wanting everything to be nice!  Embrace imperfections, try (if it’s true) to see the good motivations (wanting connection) behind the problematic behaviours and focus on enjoying any moments of connection rather than striving for an idealized holiday experience.


  1. Communicate Boundaries


Prior to the festivities, communicate your boundaries politely but firmly. Whether it’s setting limits on discussing certain topics or requesting personal space, clear communication can help manage potential conflicts. 


The firmest boundary you can set is to not participate at all in the family Christmas and for some people this is a very healthy boundary. It can also be helpful to remember that if you do show up to the family Christmas you have chosen to go so take ownership of this and claim the fullness of that choice and then maybe hold softer boundaries that help you stay connected with your family.


Some families, especially those that are enmeshed, struggle with boundaries and they may try and make you feel guilty for this or get angry. Remember you are entitled to have boundaries and that asserting and maintaining boundaries is primarily our responsibility which others will not automatically understand or respect. While communicating our boundaries is essential, expecting others to inherently know or adhere to them can lead to disappointment or frustration. It’s our task to clearly articulate our limits and consistently reinforce our boundaries. Taking charge of our own boundaries empowers us to navigate relationships more effectively.


  1. Practice Self-Care


 Amid the chaos, prioritize self-care. Take breaks when needed, practice mindfulness or meditation, and engage in activities that rejuvenate your spirit. Remember, it’s okay to step away for a breather if things become overwhelming. I often go for a short walk by myself on christmas day as I love being in nature and often need some respite from chit chat but it could be as simple as going to the bathroom for two minutes and doing some breathing ot watching cat videos on You Tube!


  1. Take and Interest and Seek Common Ground


Many of us focus on how other people are showing up to us but it can also be helpful to shift our focus on how we are showing up towards others. Orientate your attention to others in a warm way, take interest in them, see what’s good in them and be genuinely curious about their life. This might feel unfair if you are the one always doing this and it doesn’t feel reciprocated but you are really doing it for you not them-something we call enlightened self interest.


Find common interests or topics that foster positive conversation. Sharing stories, playing games, or engaging in activities that everyone enjoys can shift the focus to shared experiences and create a more harmonious atmosphere. This is one I have learnt to do over the years. My father and I have very different values and there are certain topics that we just can’t talk about together so, with some regrettable exceptions, I now do not engage in these conversations and change the topic. I have had to balance this with remaining true to my values and retaining my self respect so sometimes I will explicitly say ‘I am feeling uncomfortable continuing this conversation, I do not think it is OK to say X/Y/Z but I love you and want us to enjoy our time together so can we talk about something else’. Luckily most of the time this is appreciated but when it isn’t then remember we always have the choice to walk away and say I am just taking a break for a while because I don’t want to argue with you but will be back in 10 mins. This is putting in place a boundary (discussed above) and boundaries make for safer relationships.  I have also learnt not to get into lengthy discussions or overly defend my position when someone is not receptive to hearing others points of view-my opinion will probably only strengthen their beliefs anyhow.


  1. Manage Expectations


 Sometimes, family members might not change their behaviors. Accepting this reality can alleviate frustration. Focus on controlling your reactions rather than trying to control others. Don’t underestimate the power of family systems to draw you back into old and problematic dynamics so focus on your behaviour and keep your side of the street clean!


  1. Foster Gratitude


Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Reflect on the positives and express appreciation for the moments of joy, laughter, and love shared during the holidays. I recently read the book 4000 weeks by Oliver Burkeman who emphasizes the importance of considering the limited time we have with our loved ones. He encourages readers to reflect on the reality that the number of interactions or moments we’ll share with someone before they pass away is finite. I find this perspective serves as a poignant reminder to cherish the time I have with my family. This doesn’t mean I am naive, ignore or minimise the difficult dynamics that occur but I try and balance this with gratitude. 


  1. Practice Compassion


Everyone has their own struggles and insecurities. Approach family members with empathy and understanding. Sometimes, a compassionate approach can dissolve tensions and lead to more meaningful interactions. Both my parents had incredibly traumatic childhoods and they were born into a world with very different values and norms than me. Whilst this doesn’t stop people from needing to take responsibility for the way they show up in the world and in their relationships it can help us to be more understanding and forgiving. 


  1. Create Alternatives


 If spending the entire day together seems daunting, consider creating alternative plans. Volunteer at a local charity, engage in an outdoor activity, or plan a smaller, intimate celebration with a select few family members or friends.


  1. Reflect and Learn


 After the holidays, take time to reflect on your experiences. Consider what worked well and what didn’t. Use this insight to prepare for future gatherings and find ways to enhance positive interactions.


  1. Repair


 Repairing ruptures demands patience, empathy, and a willingness to engage in open, honest conversations. Start by choosing your timing carefully and acknowledge the rifts without blame or judgment. Express your feelings calmly, owning your part in the conflict if appropriate, and actively listen to others involved. Apologize when necessary although note that repair is more than an apology.Sometimes apologies are offered in the hope of forgetting about what happened and moving on. Genuine repair requires talking about what happened, understanding what happened, committing to doing something different next time and following through on that and that is the only way trust can be restored in a relationship.


Remember, surviving Christmas with family doesn’t mean avoiding conflicts altogether. It’s about navigating these challenges with resilience and grace, finding moments of joy and connection, and recognizing the value in these shared experiences. Stay true to yourself, prioritize your well-being, and embrace the spirit of the season in a way that feels authentic to you.


Wishing you peace, joy, and harmony this holiday season.


From Olivia and all of us at The Psychology Company.