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The most wonderful time of the year? Coping with family stressors at Christmas

22 December 2021 | by Guest

The oft repeated adage that Christmas is a time for family usually overlooks the very real impact of having strained family relationships that can cause immense anxiety before and after Christmas. So, Dr Nilufar Ahmed asks, what can we do if spending time with family is stressful?

When we spend time with our families it is almost inevitable for us to fall back in to our childhood patterns of sibling rivalries and family power struggles. This regression is a common psychological defence mechanism. Defence mechanisms come into play when we are stressed, and whilst Christmas is stressful anyway the last couple of years with Covid has increased stress levels. Importantly a defence mechanism may still be triggered even when it is not helpful. Our brain thinks it is helping us out by taking our minds back to the patterns of thinking when we had to deal with them a lot, i.e. our childhood. 

Daniel Kahneman describes the different systems of thinking where ‘system one’ is the automatic system which relies on our existing knowledge and experience and ‘system two’ is more engaged and deliberate thinking. When it comes to family, our brains tend to work on system one and  default to previous similar social experiences with our family  so that we can get on with other more important things. 

At Christmas, this is an important way of ensuring we have the capacity to attend to more immediate issues like buying presents, making sure laundry is sorted, or packing the car with everything. One risk of this way of processing information is that it can set off existing conflict loops we are caught in with our families where our brains replay prior get-togethers where we may have felt anxious in the lead up, had tense encounters during the holiday, and even may have left wanting to never repeat the experience again! 

Subconsciously this is what our brains are processing in the lead up to Christmas, and this will be the expectation we go in to the holiday with. Of course the converse is true, for those who have always have pleasant family experiences, they will go in to Christmas get togethers expecting the best. The type of mental filter through which we view our world will necessarily impact how we experience it. 

So what can you do if you find yourself in this situation?  Here are some tips to apply system two thinking to deliberately examine the dynamics of your family and think about what you want from the holiday.  

Set boundaries. This can be difficult if you haven’t had boundaries in your family before, but it is never too late to set them. This can include asking family members not to call you by a nickname, or to not assume you will take on certain role. Even if they don’t stop, it is an important step for you to have articulated your needs. Often family members will respond with ‘but we didn’t know this is how you felt, you didn’t tell us’.

Setting boundaries communicates your needs clearly so when you act upon them e.g. ‘If you keep carrying on with this behaviour, I will have to leave early’ they cannot say they didn’t know.  

You don’t have to get involved in the drama. It can be tempting to get drawn into the numerous, inevitable disagreements that pop up in any family situation (from politics to how best to cook a turkey and everything in between), but these conversations can often be unproductive. If you don’t want to get pulled in to arguments, it is important to remember you have the power to stay out of them. 

Accept your family as they are. Wishing for them to be different won’t make it happen. Concentrate on connecting with the parts of their personalities that you do like. We rarely dislike the entirety of a person, it is usually some traits, if there are traits that you like, can you focus on those? 

Talk to your partner. It may be your partner’s family dynamics that you struggle with – have this conversation with your partner before you go. It might be the way your partner regresses around their family, the way they treat them, or it may be the way they treat you. Find time for an honest discussion before you go in to family space. If it’s your family that are stressing you, lean into your partner for support during the stress. 

Break the cycle of manipulation. Families may use emotional manipulation to guilt members into staying or attending events. It is as important to reassure yourself as much as them that this is not a rejection of them or their choices, simply that you are making the choices that are right for you. Importantly, try not to get involved in the loop of feeling you have to justify or explain your choices. This can wear you down as you will almost certainly be met with counter arguments. 

Be mindful of old patterns. If your old patterns were to shout and argue then fall into silence and pretend like nothing has happened, know you can avoid this by being clear and standing your ground. You do not have to be pulled in to the drama of others. As soon as you step out of your expected ‘role’ in the family drama you will have more control.  

Remember it’s just a few days. The worrying about it can overshadow the fact that the amount of actual time you will spend in a stressful space is actually quite limited. When we are caught in anxiety it can be overwhelming so reminding yourself it will all be over soon can be beneficial. as can some grounding techniques such as the 5 step technique or breathing exercises.  

These are just a few tips to help you better manage your time with your family and to help steer it towards something more beneficial to everyone. The key underlying idea is awareness – of yourself, f your family members, and of the deeply entrenched behaviour patterns that tie you together. Ultimately, as Tolstoy noted almost 150 years ago, ‘each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. Knowing your particular family dynamics is important in breaking the patterns. 

Dr Nilufar Ahmed is a Chartered Psychologist, Registered Psychotherapist, and Lecturer in Social Sciences at the University of Bristol 

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