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Surviving the festive family minefield

Katarina Fritzon
Dr Katarina Fritzon is an Associate Professor of Psychology with the Bond University Faculty of Society and Design.

The festive season should be a time of joy and relaxation, but for many it brings the challenges of dealing with family members who push our buttons in all the wrong ways. 

The prospect of spending significant periods of time with people who drain our energy or make us feel uncomfortable or misunderstood can make the holiday period one of dread and anxiety for many of us. 

Not taking part in the festivities simply isn’t an option for many, so how do we give ourselves the best possible chance of navigating these difficult situations? Here are my best tips.  

Practice setting boundaries: 

Setting firm boundaries for yourself with others is a good tactic, but it can be very difficult to do. Women in particular can find this a challenge, as they have been conditioned by societal expectations not to have boundaries and to always put others first. They can find it very hard to say ‘no’ as they think they are being or will be seen as ‘selfish’.  

One way to combat this is to practice in advance. Find opportunities to practice setting boundaries or having difficult conversations before big family events. It can help you feel more confident and calmer about taking these steps, increasing the chances the day will go smoothly. 

Don’t sweat the small stuff: 

It sounds like contradictory advice, but the key here is balance. Setting firm boundaries is important, but it can also be helpful to let the little things slide for the sake of harmony. Going in all guns blazing, determined to keep your boundaries intact can inflame a situation and make it worse for everyone. 

While you may have done the work on yourself, you can’t expect the dynamic to change just because you have changed. Even with the best of intentions the other party will try to bring you back to the same dynamic, because that’s where they are comfortable. Any perceived change to that can cause them to escalate a situation. This is something you need to be prepared for – shifting a relationship dynamic can take time. It will get there, but it is going to take time. 

So think about the small things you are prepared to let go while the other party is learning to accept the shift in boundaries. 

Give people some time and attention: 

Difficult people are a bit like small children – they behave the way they do because they want attention, something to occupy them, and to feel special. So one effective strategy can be to set aside some time specifically for them. It doesn’t have to be long – the advice given for children is to give them 15 good minutes of your undivided attention. It could be worth trying the same approach with difficult family members.  

Often, they simply want to feel like they are an important person in your life, not just an afterthought you only see out of duty in the holiday period. If you set aside that short period of time to spend with them at the beginning of the day, you might find it saves you for the rest of it, allowing everyone to enjoy themselves more. 

Take time out if you need to: 

Finding a way to take some time for yourself can be a useful strategy, particularly if you’re starting to feel overwhelmed. Something as simple as popping on some headphones and listening to music while meal prepping or taking a short walk alone can give you the break that you need to be in your own headspace and return refreshed.  

With such a strong focus on ‘family time’ during this period it can feel difficult or selfish to want some time alone, but it would be a pretty unreasonable person who’d deny anyone 30 minutes of self-care. Give yourself permission to take that time.  

Get some advice: 

There are some great resources available that can be very helpful when dealing with difficult family members. Walking on Eggshells by Paul Mason was written for those in a relationship with someone who has a personality disorder, but the strategies he recommends can be applied to a variety of situations, especially for those who need help setting boundaries. Dance of Anger by Harriet Learner is also a helpful resource, particularly if you’re dealing with someone extremely challenging. 

The festive season can be an emotional rollercoaster, but by applying some of these practical strategies you can increase the ratio of ups to downs.  

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