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Surviving your family at Christmas

WE'RE ceaselessly exhorted to do our Christmas shopping early -- how about starting your Christmas coping early? The quality of one's holiday experience often has a lot to do with the mechanisms we have in place to deal with the variety of familial personalities we manage to work around throughout the rest of the year.

The above is code for: how are you going to prevent yourself being driven demented by your crazy relations?

We come across that same variety of familial personalities at all manner of celebrations, be they weddings, or Christenings, or 21st birthdays. Depending upon your own personality, the degree to which you are sent round the bend ebbs and flows with the peculiar alchemy we come across in our clans.

You may prefer your in-laws -- or they may be the direct descendants of Beelzebub. Your own lot might be the best craic going -- or they are all candidates for maximum security lock-up, especially the younger set, who are serial killers-in-training.

Sound over the top? We all lose perspective occasionally, and when high expectations meet celebratory events, then you've really got to know what your limits are, and how to deal with the inevitable outbreaks of crazy.


The thing is, you can't change anyone else. You can't 'make' them do anything they don't want to do. The only thing you can do is change your own behaviour.

This is a seriously annoying truth. After all, you're not the one drinking your body weight in spirits and then picking fights with everyone, including the cat. You're not the one spreading rumours about what's in the mother's will. You're not the one who is complaining all the time about the others. You brace yourself every year for the same outbreaks, but could you be doing something more productive?

Instead of reacting, you can work on responding, and that's where the lead time before an event comes in. You can practise reframing your reactions into responses, and while you may not get it perfect, you can make progress. By taking the time to respond, rather than react, you may find that the situation resolves itself without you having to do anything at all. If you don't rise, the instigator will just move onto the next.

Below are five challenging 'types' you may come across in family groups, and ways in which to keep your sanity intact.


If you are throwing caution to the wind and tying one on, then you probably won't even notice how scrappy this one gets with the drink on them.

If you are dealing with serious problem drinking, however, and can't deal with it any more, you need to know that you have choices. You need to know that you can't change the other person, and that you won't accept unacceptable behaviour. You can be polite and compassionate without being a doormat. You don't need to engage. In fact, don't engage at all. If this is the thing you most dread about attending that wedding, or celebrating a big family milestone, then do what you can to minimise the damage by making choices. Make sure you're not seated at the same table. Leave whenever it feels right. Do what you can to manage your own discomfort.


OMG. Nothing worse than a surly teenager. Especially when you look around, and see everything that the young lad/wan has to be grateful for, all the family around who love him/her, how we've all come through challenging times and are so, so lucky to be together as a family! The least they could do is participate a little, join in the conversation over dinner -- and take out the earbuds and put down the iThingie!

Don't even bother with a little speech like that. Pointless in the extreme. If you really feel they need to do something, and want them to be a part of things whether they like it or not, then put those hormones to use and give them something to chop up, preferably vegetables and not a younger sibling. Or maybe make them tend the fire. Just don't bother trying to talk to them over the iThingie. As long as they are within sight, they are alright, and they'll remember you fondly as the one who didn't bug them relentlessly.


This is a great situation in which to practise compassion. Sure, a bit of a gossip is no big deal, but when you find yourself drawn in talking about everyone in the entire family in a low voice, behind their backs, you're in the danger zone.

Endlessly judging everyone else comes across as aggressive, yet it is a sign of low self-esteem, the need to bond no matter what the cost, and can also be a sign of loneliness. What better way to feel better about oneself than the continuously run down someone else? What better way to forge a relationship than by having a whispery tete-a-tete in the front lounge? A foolproof way to deal with this behaviour is to put the attention on the speaker. Paying compliments are a great way to defuse a monologue -- lovely jumper, auntie Mary! -- as well as questions about what's new with them, will put the focus on them for a change.

You could also repeatedly leave the room, but this will only start a rumour that you've got a spastic colon or something.


There's nothing like a big event to make a moaner's day. This sounds paradoxical because the more joy and fun that abounds, the more the moaner has to moan about.

For example, a big fancy wedding inspires topics along the lines of "it must be nice to have this amount of money to waste", "must be nice to be young and naive" etc.

I personally find this type to be like nails on a chalkboard, and I can get a little crazy myself, countering every moan with relentless good cheer. I have found the more I moan in turn, the less fun the moaner gets out of the situation. Then they are the ones to leave the room, and luckily I am not a gossipy one, so that rumour about the colon thing didn't start with me.


Their contribution to the potluck supper is some complicated Nigella-y thing; they have specially brought a case of wine when they drove back from France, just for this occasion; the children are immaculate; the husband is too, and doesn't overindulge.

One can be a man, of course! He's the one who got out the ladder and went up on the roof and found the dead bulb in the garland of lights, despite the gale-force winds and the icy conditions, because mum-in-law was so disappointed that they weren't working.

They are the ones that always have gifts for everyone, and you suspect it's down to them wanting to be admired for their generosity, rather than being actually thoughtful. Then you catch yourself thinking that, and feel like

a rotter, and make an effort to be nice, only to start fielding patronising remarks about how busy you must be -- too busy to do more than pick up a box of mince pies for the table?

There are self-esteem issues at play here, too. Being perfect doesn't allow much leeway, and it must be exhausting, having to keep up appearances all the time.

Set your limits ahead of time, and when you get wherever, go find a corner, and hang out with the people you like. Just don't give out too much about any of the types above -- if someone tells you they like your jumper, you know you've got to keep an eye on your own behaviour!