There’s no doubt that Christmas is an emotional time of the year and whilst many look forward to the festivities and gatherings, many find a feeling of dread brewing at the thought of seeing family members, facing questions and criticisms about their personal life or facing the festive season without a loved one. With the festive period approaching, we explore why Christmas can be extremely difficult for many people and offer some ways to cope with the festive season.
Christmas is stressful for everyone: feeling obligated to buy presents for the world and his dog, hosting gatherings and traveling the country to visit family can cause financial strain and require lots of planning. For many, Christmas is one of the few times a year where everyone is gathered together due to busy lives, work schedules and distance, and the pressure to force happiness and get along can cause anxiety towards such events, especially when facing a dysfunctional family or difficult family members.
A dysfunctional family unit can have significant issues with everything from anger management, low self-esteem, an obsession with control, selfishness or a preoccupation with health or finances. Psychotherapist, Karl Melvin explains how this may manifest itself in many behaviours; for example, adult children being reminded by parents about past mistakes, whether this is open or subtle criticism, the use of passive-aggressive communication styles, emotional blackmail or picking arguments unprovoked. These behaviours are often enhanced at Christmas: with emotions already at an all-time high, it may only take a couple of glasses of mulled wine for people to let go of their inhibitions and let their thoughts or critical questions about others’ weight, relationships, work or study achievements fly.
It can be incredibly difficult to deal with such interactions, especially when trying to maintain the positive festive spirit by making the effort to get along with family. With the festive season approaching, if you’re anxious about dealing with tough personal relationships and family dynamics, it’s not too early to start thinking about ways to cope so that you’re mentally prepared for the Christmas period.
- If someone is trying to cause disruption, arguments or harm you can choose to indulge their desire to cause drama or you can choose to ignore them, change the conversation and be the bigger person. Although much easier said than done, consider taking yourself out of the room for a few minutes or going for a walk. If it gets too much and someone is being too aggressive, leaving is always an option (as long as you tell someone first). Do what you need to do to protect yourself from damaging people and always remember that you are not to blame for their behaviour.
- If you’re expecting certain questions to come up that are a bit tricky, figure out your responses beforehand. Set the boundaries: if you’ve had a tough year and are uncomfortable discussing particular topics, have a series of neutral conversation topics you can switch to. Focus on what you’re proud of: perhaps you moved house, got a promotion at work, started a new hobby. Alternatively, ask questions of others before they can ask you.
- Consider how long to stay at the event in question. Perhaps you can show your face, without staying for the whole event. This way, you will be able to say you’ve been – avoiding the guilt of not going – but reduce the hurt and emotion you’re exposed to. Agree with your partner or sibling, whoever you have gone with, when you’re going to leave. Additionally, have a signal prepared in case one of you wants to leave before the suggested time.
- After the event, write in a journal or call a friend to discuss what happened so that your emotions are not suppressed completely, but let out in a healthy way.
Some family dynamics may be too much to handle altogether. Sarah, who has struggled first-hand with family dysfunction at Christmas, explains her personal reminder: an invitation is not a summons. She does not feel obliged to attend family gatherings if she knows they will be damaging experiences and reminds herself to not feel guilty for the impact of others’ actions. You need to look after your mental health and if attending an event really is going to be too damaging, remember this piece of advice.
With emotions running high and pressure added on gift-giving, mingling and spending more time with in-laws (which for many spouses is not a pleasant experience), it is not surprising that pressure on people’s romantic relationships starts to build up. This intense period of approximately two to three weeks which will test any couple, and often break couples who were already going through difficulties, whether that be because of financial stress, social and family pressures or stress of the holiday preparations. All these factors can add up and tip the balance. Consequently, early January is one of the times of the year with the highest divorce rate. Although studies have shown that many couples considering divorce wait until after the festive period, pushing through to maintain good cheer, avoid awkward questions at family gatherings and maintain the magic of Christmas for children, we have to ask how healthy it is to suppress such emotions and pretend that everything’s okay. Surely this makes this period even more stressful and emotional for those involved?
It’s not just large families who struggle at this time of the year either – it’s also difficult for single parent households and smaller families. Christmastime is so frequently sold as a family-orientated time of the year; with films and adverts showing idyllic scenes of big families coming together and having a wonderful time. These images which saturate our screens is not realistic and can be difficult for some to cope with. Loneliness can prevail, with people longing after lost memories, family members, partners and friends who they wish could join them in what is supposedly one of the happiest times of the year. Add to this the increased pressure coming from decorating the house, buying presents and attending children’s festivities; school plays and carol concerts which all fall to a single parent’s responsibility can add to their emotion in this period. The most important thing to remember is to be thankful for what you have and provide as much happiness and festive cheer for your children and yourself as possible. Remember: you’re not alone. Friends are the family you choose, and Christmas is just as much time for treasuring these relationships as biological family.
Whatever your situation this festive season – whether you decide to try and reconnect with family members, push through difficult gatherings or enjoy a more private Christmas – surround yourself with special, kind people who care about you. That’s what Christmas is all about: celebrating love in all its forms and being thankful for what you do have. That’s how you really can turn it from the most emotional, into the most wonderful time of the year.
For more advice on how to cope with a dysfunctional family Christmas, the following article provides 10 suggestions: https://robbiesenbach.com/10-steps-for-surviving-a-dysfunctional-family-christmas/ . To discuss mental health worries and difficulties, talk to Mind at https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/helplines/web-chat/#a