Easing family tensions at Xmas

Cut out the pushing and shoving on Christmas day.
Photo / Thinkstock
Cut out the pushing and shoving on Christmas day. Photo / Thinkstock

Watch any Hollywood family Christmas movie and chances are there'll be a scene where everyone unleashes their pent-up rage on one another.

The docile father launches into a tirade on the uncle, while the unflappable mother digs her nails into the meddling in-laws.

While it's fun to watch on the screen, most of us can relate to the disaster that ensues when you put everyone from melancholic Uncle Steve to fiesty cousin Mary together in the one room.

"It's one of the few times of the year we try to get all of the significant people in our lives together, but for some of us that can be a toxic mix," says Relationships Australia NSW operations director Lyn Fletcher.

"Christmas is meant to be a time of celebration and yet often you're not with the people you would choose to spend your time with," she adds.

Fletcher says it's best to keep any long-held resentments at home.

"The past doesn't belong on the Christmas table, except to be grateful for what it has given you," she says.

But let's face it, issues about who gets to host this year, what food to make with varying dietary restrictions and how much to spend on gifts are more than likely to erupt and spark a squabbling session.

One way to reduce stress is to break some family traditions, Fletcher advises.

"If Christmas is not a time you look forward to, then change something. Question the norms, rituals and habits as a family and ask, 'do they still apply?' Don't keep hitting your head against a brick wall," she says.

For example, the family could decide this year that only under-18s get presents, or make it a creative challenge where everyone's involved.

At psychologist Meredith Fuller's house, the usual gift-giving ritual is turned into a family activity.

"We have a game called the stoic Christmas. We give two presents - one's ghastly and horrific and the other is something we think they'll like," Fuller says.

The joke is whether the recipient picks out the real gift, and they don't always get it right.

"It's hysterical and makes something of a chore quite fun," she adds.

If you're avoiding the party because you don't get along with someone in particular, chat to the host about seating arrangements and move around the room to catch up with relatives you do get along with.

"Be civil, don't go 'well, I'm going to give that person a piece of my mind'. Christmas is not the time for that," Fletcher says.

If that doesn't work and you find yourself gripping a cricket bat and picturing whacking said person with it, consider using it for a round of cricket instead. Physical activities not only pass the time, but can distract everyone from the kids to the grown-ups.

So while grandma's taking a nap, dust off the covers of a board game, cool off in the pool, or take a breather with the dog on a walk.

It's also important to lower expectations and acknowledge that not everyone and everything will be perfect on the day.

"One of the problems is that we have this fantasy that everyone loves each other, there's to be a beautifully set table, and everyone gets an expensive present," Fuller says.

If someone doesn't turn up, it's more likely their absence is because of other commitments - not that they're harbouring resentment.

"The expectation that everybody is available at the same time and same place, and they don't have other commitments, is unrealistic in this world," Fletcher explains.

And while the Hollywood family may be squabbling about a lost family heirloom, if you're suffering this Christmas, take heart that so too is someone else out there.

"It's a fantasy that everyone else in Australia is having a lovely Christmas and you're having an awful time.

"The truth is most people find Christmas one of the most stressful times of the year - but remember, it's only one day out of the whole year," Fletcher says.

"And it's something to be enjoyed."

Family Christmas Survival Tips:

* Don't avoid the family Christmas party altogether, you may only be there for a few hours.

* Reduce stress by outsourcing hosting duties - you could have lunch at one house and dinner at another, or share the load and invite relatives to help with the catering.

* Break up the day with some social activities such as sport, board games, or pool activities.

* Make gift-giving an activity rather than a chore - Kris Kringle, handmade or personalised gifts, or limiting the cost are some options

* Keep conversation to neutral topics that won't cause World War III - holiday movies, books or what everyone's been doing in the past year

* Don't hog the conversation - pass it around like you pass the food. Avoid talking to kids about school (they hate it), and whatever you do, don't talk about the weather (it's a bit awkward).


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