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Last updated 7 December, 2022

How to manage difficult family dynamics over the holidays 

With all the planning and prepping that come with the festive season, it’s no wonder that this is a time of increased stress. Add the burden of expectations, extra financial costs, and end-of-year fatigue, and it’s easy to understand why Christmas is considered one of the six most stressful life events – and why the mere thought of a family gathering fills some of us with dread.

Common triggers of seasonal stress

According to Relationships Australia, Christmas is the most likely time of year for many people to experience anxiety and depression; and those who are separated or divorced, live in blended families, or have experienced a death in the family face significant challenges during the festive season.

Even if we’re not dealing with loss, separation or the complications that step-families bring, there’s a list of other triggers that can lead to bickering and increased tension. 

Disagreements commonly arise around the following:

  • How much money to spend on gifts

  • What to buy for whom

  • Who’ll host an event, and who’ll attend it

  • Who is responsible for cleaning up 

  • Discussion on topics such as politics, religion or sports

  • Raising past squabbles

Stress can also be triggered simply by doing too much or juggling increased work and family demands; for others, feeling pressure to celebrate something they don’t believe in, or don’t want to be a part of, can dial up their anxiety. 

Certain habits can make matters worse:

Many of us overindulge during the festive season. Overeating and partying until late can affect our sleep quality – and being tired makes us more irritable (and less likely to stay calm!). At the same time, excessive drinking often fuels anger and may increase anxiety or depression. Because alcohol slows down the central nervous system, it also affects our ability to process thoughts and make rational decisions which, in turn, makes us less self-reflective and lowers our ability to resolve conflict.

How to prepare for a happier festive season

Before you run for the hills, there are a few simple steps you can take to help minimise the risk of a fight with your loved ones:

1. Before festivities kick off, set clear boundaries. Work out what your limits are – physical, mental and emotional – and get comfortable saying no. 

2. Have an open conversation about money, draw up a budget well ahead of time, and stick to it.

3. Make a list of everything you need to buy; shop early to avoid a last-minute rush. Next, delegate as many tasks as possible – if everyone does their bit, no one will feel overwhelmed.

4. Be realistic and don’t expect others to change. Families that argue often aren’t likely to stop just because it’s the holiday season. 

5. Let go of perfection. The season is not about a perfectly decorated home or a perfectly behaved family. Setting high expectations can leave us irritable and disappointed.

6. Don’t overcommit; schedule time for yourself, to do something romantic with your partner, or to have fun with your kids. 

7. During the lead-up, and for the duration of the holiday season, keep up physical activity, take time to relax every day, and enjoy alcohol in moderation.

How to survive family stress over the holidays

No matter how well prepared we are, the best-laid plans often go awry. Here are the best strategies to help you navigate tough family dynamics.

After separation or divorce 

  • Make time to be alone to acknowledge and deal with your feelings so you’re not overcome by negative emotions at gatherings. 

  • Put children first. Try your best to be civil to your ex during this period, and keep disagreements to times when the kids aren’t present.

  • Encourage your children to share their feelings about the divorce or separation – talking to you about it can help them feel more secure during this time.

  • To help ease resentment, stagger celebrations so that kids can spend quality time with each parent. You can always swap things around next year!

  • Be kind: make step-children feel welcome; and don’t pressure kids to act or be a certain way. 

  • Mix it up! Keep a few favourite family traditions but be willing to create new ways to celebrate with new family members.

  • When the going gets tough, remind yourself that ‘perfect’ families don’t exist. 

After bereavement

  • Don’t feel pressured to celebrate if you’re not ready. Give yourself permission to do what feels comfortable.

  • Remember, there is no ‘right’ way to grieve – accepting that people cope with loss in different ways will go a long way to diffusing tension in your family.

  • If you do choose to get together, consider trying something different this year. A new venue, for example, may help ease the pain of celebrating Christmas without a loved one.

  • If you do find yourself – or someone else – enjoying a get-together, let go of guilt. Experiencing joy doesn’t mean you don’t miss someone.

  • Take comfort from those around you and, above all, be patient with yourself and your family members.

When things get heated 

  • Acknowledge that others may also be feeling exhausted, stressed or emotional. Having empathy can help you avoid unnecessary conflict.

  • Keep your sense of humour. If your mum criticises your pavlova, or your brother stirs up trouble because he’s had a few too many, take a mental step back and remind yourself why you love them.

  • As in any difficult situation, it’s important to remain calm. If you feel yourself getting hot under the collar, take a deep breath and count to 10 to calm down and consider your own responses.

  • Being stuck around a table for too long can fan the flames of an argument, so give yourself (and everyone else) a break – get up and go for a walk; get busy with something else; focus on engaging with those family members you do get along with.

  • Sometimes it’s OK to say no. Choosing to go away for the holidays can be a welcome circuit-breaker – and a stress-free alternative this year! 

  • Learn more about how to have tough conversations – listen to our podcast here.

If family conflict is an ongoing issue, it may be time to seek professional help. 

A coach can help you identify unhelpful patterns of thinking and communicating, and support you to reframe your mindset, develop better communication skills, manage intense emotions, and build resilience. Through coaching, you’ll be supported in coping with grief, or be equipped with the tools and strategies you need to manage stress or anxiety. 

Still worried about navigating your family dynamics this festive season? Or finding that a little pre-Christmas stress is fast becoming distress? 
Book a session now to connect with one of our expert coaches.

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