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Coping with difficult family relationships during the Christmas period

There are so many expectations around Christmas and new year, many of which are perpetuated by the media’s portrayal of cosy, nurturing family Christmas get-togethers. You know what I’m talking about – images of large families gathered around a roast turkey looking blissfully happy, couples huddled together by the Christmas tree or children tearing open presents while their parents look on lovingly. Of course, this may be the experience of many people. However, the picture-perfect image of Christmas is a far cry from reality for many people, particularly those experiencing family conflict, separation, navigating child custody arrangements or those estranged from one or more family members.

Apart from the pain, isolation and sadness associated with the holiday period, stigma also exists in relation to not meeting society’s expectations of the close-knit family Christmas. In fact, a 2015 study by the UK charity, Stand Alone, found that 68 percent of adults estranged from a family member feel judged, misunderstood and stigmatised by others.

For anyone dreading Christmas this year, I’d like to remind you that you’re not alone. Family estrangement is actually incredibly common and something we don’t talk about enough. Knowing how hard this period can be for many people, I’d like to share with you some guidance on how you can get through this period with your mental health intact. Here goes:

Allow yourself to feel – It’s okay to feel sad, disappointed or angry in the run up, during and after the holiday period. Write about these feelings in a journal, talk to someone, cry or shout into a pillow. It won’t make the pain go away but it will help you move through it quicker.

Plan your answers about the holidays – There’s an incredible amount of stigma related to being estranged from family or not fitting the idealised Christmas ‘norms’. Decide what you’ll tell people in advance to avoid feeling awkward or embarrassed when colleagues or acquaintances ask how you’ll spend Christmas. I’m not suggesting you lie or exaggerate. A simple – ‘I’m spending it with my partner’s family this year’ or ‘Just a quiet lunch with close friends’, will suffice.

Reach out – Speak to a friend, family member or therapist about what you’re going through. This is not something to go through alone so please seek the support you need.

Remind yourself that this is temporary and you’ll get through it.

Make a plan for the holiday season – Knowing that you have some purpose or plans for this period will make it easier to deal with. Plan an exercise schedule, volunteer at a charity, schedule a date to meet friends or book a trip abroad. There’s nothing like idle time to feed the over-thinking, so having a routine or something to look forward to can ease your pain or distress.

Disengage from social media – The last thing you want to see when feeling lonely or sad are images of other people seemingly having the time of their lives and surrounded by people they love. Do yourself a favour and limit social media intake during this time.

Plan an exit strategy – If you’re attending the same family event as someone you’re at loggerheads with, be prepared for the possibility that things may go pear-shaped at some point. Have a couple of excuses prepared in advance just in case conflict erupts, you feel uncomfortable, unsafe or just need to get away. For instance, ‘I have an emergency at home and need to leave’; ‘I’m feeling unwell’; ‘I have another event and need to leave straight after lunch’.

Don’t drink alcohol – I know, I know, could things get any unfairer? This probably may feel like the worst time to go teetotal, but I can assure you that you’ll thank yourself afterwards. Alcohol may calm the nerves somewhat, but drinking can cause you to let your guard down, feel emotions more deeply and say things you’ll later regret. If you want to remain in control and level-headed, if and when someone tries to provoke or upset you, stick with water and save the social drinking for when you’re with people you’re comfortable with.

Manage your expectations – Isn’t it amazing how, despite the many times the same person has mistreated, ridiculed or hurt us, each time it happens we’re left feeling shell-shocked? Okay, it’s time to get real! Any hopes you may have that someone who’s hurt you on multiple occasions will finally see the error of their ways and start being respectful and kind needs to be filed in the ‘will not happen’ pile. This is not pessimism, this is about being realistic and adjusting your expectations based on past experience. Once you accept that certain people will not change, you’ll be less hurt and disappointed. It will be more like, ‘Okay, here we go again. It’s time to make my exit’.

Don’t take the bait – Some people love conflict and will poke you until you get drawn in and react. As much as you feel tempted to give them a piece of your mind, don’t waste your time and energy. Instead, respond politely, move away, and completely disengage from them. As the popular saying goes – ‘Never wrestle with a pig. You just get dirty and the pig enjoys it’. Wise words indeed.

Danjela Falzon - Malta therapy clinic

About Danjela Falzon

Danjela has been practising as a Psychotherapist since 2011, having read for a BSc in Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, followed by a Masters in Gestalt Psychotherapy at GPTIM. She works therapeutically with individuals, adopting an approach which is warm and empathic, yet direct and challenging when necessary. She also works with groups, teaching mindfulness and providing support and guidance to reduce stress and anxiety.

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