Christmas preparations are stressful enough, even before family members start to arrive and add their 'colourful' personalities to the mix.
While we all love our family and accept their foibles and quirks, dealing with the relatives en masse can sometimes be less than joyous during the holiday season.
Here, family therapist and mother of two Nicole Robins explains to us how to handle some common personalities that turn up at our family gatherings, and how best to keep the peace, and our sanity!
"The reality is that many families don't have that much contact as an extended family group throughout the year," says Nicole.
"The expectations of coming together at Christmas and creating a magical, manicured slice of family togetherness that can be treasured forever are hard to resist."
For most, during these times of heightened expectations, "Many people step into typical roles in their families to stem their anxiety," she says.
Nicole explains that an unfair division of labour leads to undue stress, and women commonly go into overdrive during the holiday season.
"Unfortunately women seem to think that Christmas preparations are still mainly their responsibility," she says. "Over-functioning is a typical response where everyone tries to outdo and over cater.
Nicole's recommendation is that "If we can all hold on to ourselves and leave space for others to share the responsibility, then you will usually find that people do step up and take responsibility (including children and teens)."
Which leads us to our next personality:
"Some people under-function instead of over-functioning because that has been their programming in the family," says Nicole.
"Often we blame individuals and see others as the villain or the victim. The evidence would suggest otherwise, and as a family therapist I notice that patterns of behaviour are often circular and serve a function in the family system."
We can mitigate this by taking a step back, she says.
"If women who typically rush around attending to all the details were able to step back and not take charge of every little detail they would probably notice that the day was not a failure and in fact it gave others an opportunity to shine a little, and them a bit more of a chance to catch up with lovely relatives."
But sometimes it's difficult to always see our lovely relatives in a good light, especially when they're playing the role of:
The overly-critical family member
Ever spent days, even weeks preparing for Christmas, only to have a family member criticise everything? If the answer is 'yes', then you've probably already identified who that person will be this year.
Nicole says that unfortunately, criticism often invites defensiveness, which leads to a circular pattern where neither party feels understood.
"Being defensive when faced with criticism is as unhelpful as being critical," she says. "This is interesting to observe actually because I think we tend to judge the critical person more harshly."
Nicole believes that we need to learn to manage our own emotions better in this situation.
"If faced with criticism, the most helpful stance is one of acknowledgement. This doesn't mean agreeing with the person but it does mean hearing their complaint and verbalising that i.e. 'I can hear that you are very upset and think I never wash up at Christmas parties. I didn't realise how much that bothered you.'
"The effect of a good acknowledgement can be astounding!" She says.
The other side-effect of criticism is that people can tend to drink a little more than they usually would to cope, in which case you may be faced dealing with a:
Drunk family member
It's okay to be a little tipsy at Christmas, but when people drink too much, either because they feel more relaxed, or perhaps to cope with their own stresses, they can also become rude and obnoxious and say things they don't mean.
So how do you deal with a difficult drunk diplomatically?
Nicole asks: 'How would you like to be treated if you were them?' and 'What is your responsibility in this situation?'
"It may be necessary to do something, to just make sure that everyone is safe, or time to give objective feedback," she says.
Recommended line: 'I notice you seem to be a bit unstable on your feet (or whatever you can observe rather than making a judgement) – can I help you over to a chair and get you a glass of water?'
Finally, Nicole argues that the key to surviving Christmas is to maintain realistic expectations.
"Forget about the images of family togetherness that we are being inundated with. Be real," she says.
"If you haven't spoken to some members of your families since last Christmas, then it is very unlikely that the Christmas party this year will morph you all into a cosy scene from The Brady Bunch."
- Have more realistic goals and try to focus your goals around your own behaviour (since this is really the only person who you can directly affect change upon at such short notice!).
- Ask yourself what you typically find most stressful about the gathering, and what role you usually play in contributing to this scenario?
- Try to have the same expectations of having a good time as you would when you go out with friends. Ask what it is about your own behaviour with friends that you could replicate with your family?
- Be more open and interested in others, and perhaps give more of yourself and share who you really are with your family in a gentle and thoughtful way, rather than as a confrontational approach of 'take me or leave me just as I am!'
- Set some small goals like connecting meaningfully with everyone for at least a few minutes.
Your say: What is your worst Christmas experience?
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