The year is almost at an end, and there are so many things to get done in the limited time we have left. Credit cards are stretched to their limits, there are always more presents to buy and our stress levels are just about maxed out – not to mention, the family commitments.

All of this tension can spell trouble for our family get togethers, particularly if there are pre-existing conflicts or disagreements. Despite weeks or even months of planning, one last-minute change can throw everything into disarray, and the pressure can cause people to act in… uh, ‘interesting’ ways.

Counselling psychotherapist and family therapist Dr Karen Phillip explains that the high-stress nature of the Christmas build-up – which may then be followed by weeks or even months of financial hardship – can put immense pressure on family dynamics.

“Family is something you’re either born into, or have inherited through a relationship – as such, the array of personalities is extraordinary,” says Karen. “When we all get together, it can create a pressure cooker of difference. We want to be excited and happy, to relax and enjoy the festive season, but with so many expectations upon us it can be challenging.”

The key to not only surviving the family festivities, but actually enjoying them, is preparation. Karen explains that this doesn’t just come down to actually making plans with your various family members – you can mentally prepare by remembering that everyone feels just as tired and under pressure as you are at this time of year.

“Be prepared for the fact that some family members will get under your skin, and make a conscious decision to smile, be polite and dismiss their unwarranted or negative comments ahead of the family event,” Karen says.

Karen also says that being aware of people’s differences can do a world of good when it comes to mitigating conflict.

“Sometimes we may become annoyed at others because they do not fit our expectations of behaviour or opinion,” Karen says, “but, be aware that they may also feel and think the same about you.

“You are both right, but do you have the right to push your expectations onto them, and expect them to agree or change? When they don’t, or can’t, we can become frustrated or angry. This has no place at Christmas.”

If you feel a family member is acting or speaking out of line, there are a few things you can do to reduce – rather than escalate – the situation. 

“Taking a moment to consider what the other person did or said to annoy you is the best way to manage a response,” says Karen.

When you feel yourself getting heated or uncomfortable, try…

  • Taking a breath and walking away for a moment or two
  • Considering the reason they may have said or done what they did
  • Responding, if you must, by engaging your brain before your mouth or actions
  • Thanking them for sharing their thoughts – this will make the other person feel validated and heard rather than dismissed, but does not mean you place any credence on what they said. You can dismiss it internally as sad or unnecessary before getting on with the celebrations
  • Practicing tolerance by understanding that almost everyone at this time is stressed, under pressure and a little on-edge

Karen also explains that alcohol can be a major contributor to family tension, and that watching your drinking could help you increase your tolerance.

“When liquor flows too freely, so too can opinions and language,” says Karen. “Things may be said that can’t be unsaid.”

Make a choice to limit your alcohol consumption, particularly if the kids are around, as this can help lower tension amongst your family members. Try consuming water or soft drinks between each alcoholic drink, or even watering-down your drinks.

“Make sure the children have some quiet time throughout the day – when the kids become loud, obnoxious and angry, we often react as well,” says Karen. “To manage your children’s behaviour, try providing some water drinks rather than soft drink, or giving them fruit instead of processed rich or sweet foods.

“Have them watch a quiet show at some point during the day, or get them outside to play and burn up their energy – and get them out of your hair, too.”

At the end of the day, remember that Christmas is a time for kindness, tolerance, happiness, sharing and love – everything else shall pass.

Looking for more? Check out Dr Karen Phillip’s brand new book, Communication Harmony. If you’re wanting to eliminate drama from your conversations and ensure your Christmas is smooth, calm and happy, this is the book for you – it may just change your life. 



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