Saturday 10 December 2016

Peace on earth: How to avoid the family fight this Christmas

Mix lack of sleep, too much booze, sour-faced siblings, pesky parents, and stressed-out spouses - and the season of goodwill rapidly turns frosty. Psychologist Marie Murray on why we find Christmas so difficult - and how to survive it

Marie Murray

Published 22/12/2015 | 02:30

'The psychology of avoiding family arguments is not to let them begin. Don’t let tensions
escalate, defuse them with humour.' Photo: Andrew Twort
'The psychology of avoiding family arguments is not to let them begin. Don’t let tensions escalate, defuse them with humour.' Photo: Andrew Twort

We don't ask 'how did you get over the Christmas?' for no reason. Christmas is often a time to be 'got over', coped with until it comes around again. Asking how did you get over Christmas acknowledges that, even at its best, Christmas can be stressful; if only because there are so many things to be done and so little time to do everything in the final run up to Christmas Day.

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Of course some of the tasks are fun. But when the tasks are too many, the traffic too heavy, the nights out too many with not enough sleep, then even before families get together for Christmas Day they can be hassled and frazzled and running low on good cheer.

No wonder, then, that there are many families who are dreading being cooped up together for Christmas, with grandparents, parents, children, siblings, in-laws and all the complex family configurations, relationships and arrangements that are part of the diverse social and family world in which we live today.

Christmas can bring out the worst in families. Research shows that this is partly because of stresses in the run up to Christmas Day such as fatigue, eating more, drinking more, work-related stresses or not having work, financial pressures, present buying, gift wrapping, house preparations and decorations and the social pressures of too many people to meet in too short a space of time.

Family stresses also arise when old sibling rivalries from the past emerge. Clinical findings on families show how quickly adult children who return to stay in the family home at Christmas can revert to and replay old patterns of behaviour from childhood.

It is amazing how fast adult children become their parents' 'children' again, rather than the independent adults they are during the rest of the year. Many regress emotionally to former childhood relationships as brothers and sisters, rivals once more for parental attention and affection, for fairness, for recognition, for approval and for love.

Sometimes siblings decide to right the wrongs from the past; put the bully brother or sister back in his or her place; make the idler do some work in the kitchen; challenge the person who always hogged parental attention; reassert roles as eldest or youngest and reclaim position in family.

It's a heady mix of emotions putting everyone together again under one roof without the routine or structure that holds them together the rest of the year, especially when you add partners whom family may like or dislike; partners who may want to be with their own family of origin for Christmas and couples trying to divide themselves between two competing households for the holidays.

Tensions can also arise on Christmas day when it comes to preparing the Christmas meal: the quibble over who sets the table, who cooks, who clears, who 'takes over' and criticises everyone; who won't let anyone contribute at all or the person who lets everyone else do the work and gets away with it.

There are those who ignore tensions which is always the best thing to do but there are also family members who are determined that this year 'lazybones' will do his or her share.

Systemic family therapy confirms how many families dread the person who drinks the glass too many each Christmas; the person who gets cantankerous who seems to want to quarrel; the person who harbors resentments; the person looking to revive old rivalries and the person who will not move on.

Then there are the anxious peacemakers, the rescuers, the family members who are tearful or maudlin, silent or silly, loud and overbearing or disturbingly quite.

Because, as in any human situation, if you bring personalities together there is always a great emotional mix.

Add rivalries from the past and the mix is richer still. Add a touch of fatigue, a few ounces of irritability, a few cases of sleeplessness, crying babies, overexcited children and disdainful teenagers and the mix is an explosive Christmas cocktail.

When there are too many people who are too intensely connected, cooped up together under one roof; when there is alcohol without food, hunger waiting for the turkey to be cooked and the general hub-bub of Christmas Day, then something has to give unless there is good emotional preparation for the day.

The psychology of avoiding family arguments is not to let them begin.

Take a breath before saying anything you'll regret. Take two breaths before answering. Don't let tensions escalate, diffuse them with humour.

See the funny side of Christmas. Remind family of good times, positive episodes and precious memories. Let those who want to dominate proceedings do so; sit back and relax and leave them to it.

Give arguments the response they deserve. Don't engage in them, and like a fire without oxygen they will blow over. Avoid competition. Christmas with sibs is not a war to be won.

Leave emotional baggage from the past where it belongs, which is somewhere else on Christmas day. Take a breather and get out of the house for a walk and fresh air. Have excuses prepared that give you time out if necessary.

It is good to remember that this is Christmas and just a few days. Go with each day as it unfolds instead of trying to design Christmas into something that can't be achieved. It is not a time to change people who are not ready to change. It is time to be with people who are the same they always were.

Christmas is not perfect, your family is not perfect but then what family is perfect? It is good to be together and worth remembering how lucky families are who have each other to argue with compared to those for whom Christmas is a time of remembering loss.

At the end of the day the great thing about Christmas is that despite everything that makes it imperfect, most people will say that home is where they want to be and family is where they belong.

Home is parents, brothers and sisters, the past, shared history, memories of past Christmases and everything that makes each family unique.

Of course adult brothers and sisters and their partners and children and adolescents do not morph into ideal people for Christmas day. Instead they stay reassuringly the same; annoying, argumentative, loving, challenging, helpful, sarcastic, humorous, witty, wry, reticent, overbearing, competitive, bored, bossy, gentle, kind, callous, mean or the generous people they have always been.

They are family. They are part of who you are and you are part of them.

Irish Independent

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