The London Economic

Surviving Families at Christmas

Christmas; the time of giving. A time of family, love and gratitude. Unless of course you happen to not get on with your family and have invited them to spend every waking moment with you in the confined surroundings of your home.

For many, using Christmas as a magical time to attempt to bring the family closer together, is an endearing social thought. For psychologists and behaviourists, however, it is the perfect recipe for disaster!

If you’ve already made plans to host your irritable mother-in-law or argumentative grandparents for the festive season, I’ve some simple but effective cooping strategies for you to prevent it becoming a ruined Christmas.

Firstly, make plans for space. Expecting everyone to be in the same positive mood for the entire day is unrealistic. Avoid planning too many activities and ensure that you factor in time that people may want to be on their own to reflect, go for a walk, or simply just sit and be quiet. For many, Christmas is a highly emotional time of a strange juxtaposition of joy and loss. Forcing people to do things that they aren’t comfortable with will lead to increased irritability, so if you don’t have the space where you’re going to be spending Christmas, suggest going for a walk, for example. It doesn’t matter if some people don’t want to do anything else as the separation will give people space and time to enjoy that.


A small additional effort to accommodate the needs of others may well prevent much longer-term aggravation and help to keep the peace, so it is absolutely worth reflecting on what is going to help make others happy and then taking steps to help secure that. Taking the defensive stance of only doing what you want is only going to lead to problems.

The run up to the big day can be especially exhausting for children (and their parents!) because of all of the excitement, so plan in plenty of early nights to make sure that you’re all a little more prepared. Sleeplessness, lack of food or hydration and stress are key factors in our feeling irritable, stressed and less patient. That makes for an especially challenging Christmas when patience and consideration of others is required.

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Some people can get carried away with the moment and peak too early, so try where possible to limit resources; keep the alcohol locked away so it isn’t freely accessible and pace yourself with food and present unwrapping. Where it all starts to come undone for many families is that all of the usual rules with regards to regulating our behaviour that we abide by every other day of our lives, go up the chimney over Christmas. Try to keep things as regular and routine as possible in order to avoid unnecessary conflict.

However, when you’re spending time in each others’ pockets and longer periods of time than usual in confined environments, Christmas becomes as much about compromise as it does about turkey. Some of the regular routines may need to be compromised, however, it’s best to articulate what you would normally do and to make it clear that, just for today, you’d be willing to try doing it someone else’s way. Not only will this help keep the peace but it helps communicate clearly that you’re willing to compromise. Much of the frustration people report at Christmas with families is due to having to bite our lips and not speak our minds. The opposite is a good strategy: don’t hold it all in but instead try to communicate what you would like to do, or normally do and invite other people’s ideas and suggestions. For just one or two days of the year, it is perfectly possible to compromise, or even for some people to be encouraged to do their own thing.

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Top of the list of family Christmas challenges is criticism! The turkey is too tough, the pudding too alcoholic, the music too loud and the stuffing too chewy – we’ve all got one in our family that is seemingly never happy with anything! Tempting as it may be to make this their last Christmas, there are some alternative strategies for coping: make your first reaction to smile and pause before reacting. My Mother used to say: “count to ten!”, which is a perfect strategy to spend a little longer in the gap between the stimulus and our response to it. Equally useful is changing the subject to something that you know the other person will enjoy talking about; a favourite hobby, or something they might be interested in watching on television later, for example. These distraction techniques often work brilliantly to guide the conversation to something more neutral and less emotionally charged and forewarned is forearmed, so spend a few moments preparing for the people you’re going to be spending time with so you’ve got some distraction topics up your sleeve.

Finally, remember that we all need to have fun and enjoy ourselves. Sometimes that might mean being a little selfish because if we don’t experience enjoyment, we begin to view the environment we are in and the people we are with, with disdain; it’s as though they are preventing us from doing what we want. However, we are very good at blaming other people for things that don’t go our way, or when we do something wrong and want to avoid taking the blame, which is just one of the reasons why pausing before we react can help to prevent so many arguments. It’s good to remind ourselves that we are responsible for our own behaviour; no one else: we can choose the behaviour we respond with, based on our desire to achieve particular consequences. It’s Christmas; it happens just once a year and regardless of your religious outlook, patience and a balance of selfishness and selflessness is going to help you survive even the most trying of family get togethers. Happy Christmas!

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