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An expert's guide to surviving Christmas when you don't like your family.

As many Australians cross their fingers and hope they can still hug their loved ones over Christmas, many others are bracing for the annual unhappy social gathering with family they dislike.

And there is nothing like the stress of planning Christmas Day to put additional pressure on couples and families.

Mum Lou* says that rather than causing herself additional anxiety at Christmas, she has decided to not see her family at all.

Watch: Things mums never say at Christmas. Post continues below. 


Video via Mamamia.

"I don’t get on with my family and I haven’t been to see them at Christmas for years," Lou says.

"It’s not worth the impact on my mental health. I have created a family around me of my children, who are now adults, their partners, friends, and grandchildren. Christmas is so much better."

Likewise, mum-of-two Allie*, who comes from a big family, is still working through her issues with her parents-in-law who often make Christmas difficult. 

"My husband is an only child and while our parents are civil, they really don’t get along," Allie says.

"I am expected to work every second Christmas, so the traditional rotation of one Christmas with his family, one with mine, doesn’t work for us. This year I am off work and in previous years we have invited the in-laws to our place but they have always turned us down sighting that my family is too big, and they don’t like a crowd. I can empathise that as my family are loud, noisy and flawed humans. 

"This year I told my family they aren’t welcome on Christmas Day because it’s my in-laws turn. They were understanding, but now my mother-in-law has invited several others of her extended family to our home, blowing our numbers out, even though she doesn’t like a crowd. 

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"She has dictated what the menu has to be, insisting it’s not Christmas without a hot lunch. We had planned a bring-a-plate style cold lunch but now we have to cook a roast lunch as well. 

"My husband and I are both hurt because it’s obvious that they are so offended by my family that they couldn’t put up with them for a few hours to see their only son and grandchildren. 

"Christmas has really lost its magic."

Parenting Coach Mel Burgess of Love Parenting in Newcastle says that the expectations of the festive season is laden with unspoken family etiquettes and protocols informally brewed across the years. 

In Allie's case, her mother-in-law's lack of flexibility and expectation of a hot lunch caused tension.

"It's often a sticky flash point between us and our partner because of mixed allegiances," Burgess explains.

With COVID worries on top of the usual family Christmas dramas this year, here are five of Burgess' top tips for navigating tricky family festive dramas with as much ease as possible.

1. Do you even need to go?

Think really hard about whether you will need to see your family at all. What will it likely cost you emotionally to attend? Will your anxiety before, during and after make it difficult to connect/behave in the way you like to with yourself, your partner and your children? 

How emotionally unsafe do you feel with the people who will be there? Are you likely to slip into behaviours you won't feel proud of later? What do you want to model to your children about taking care of oneself and those around even when there is social pressure to 'toe the line'?  

We can't expect the kids to make good decisions unless they have seen us lead by example.  

As hard as it has been with COVID, the upside is that needing to wait for test results is a clear-cut way to excuse ourselves from events that we don't have capacity for.

Maybe you will opt to get swabbed and enjoy a relaxed pyjama day deliciously alone reading and sleeping off the big year, or as a household designing the day the way you want it to look and feel.

Listen: The Mamamia Out Loud trio discuss COVID ruining Christmas, again. Post continues below.

 

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2. Go for a quick visit only.

Partially attending can also help ease the stress. 

Pre-communicating that you will join later than the start time, is often much easier than making an early getaway if they have not served food at the time planned. 

3. Be clear about your family values and boundaries. 

Get in early by letting extended family know your family values. 

For example, tell them that you don't prompt your kids to hug or kiss in exchange for presents, and be prepared to redirect them back to that information if they breach what you have stated.

4. Take lots of breaks.

Don't take the closest parking spot when you arrive. And don't carry in all that you will need at the event. 

That way you can take a slow dawdle back to the car at some stage (maybe even more than once) when you need to move your body and take some soothing long slow breaths to shake off some of the emotional debris. 

Similarly, you might take really long trips to the loo to box-breath (a deep breathing technique known to alleviate stress). 

Or if you are staying multiple days, you might be the one who avidly notices bread or milk is needing purchasing in order to take a long slow drive on your own (or with whichever of your kids most needs a space break) to pick some up in the next town!

5. Pre-plan the small talk.

Have a pre-planned change of conversation topic for each of the people you find tricky. For example, "Aunty Amy, are you still swimming laps in the ocean baths?", or a general one, "I wonder who brought the pavlova? It's DELICIOUS", as you excuse yourself and turn away to get another slice.

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6. Prepare to disagree, respectfully.

Arrive knowing you are inevitably going to encounter someone with opinions that will give you a visceral response. 

Speaking up might look like you stating that you have a different opinion than theirs and asking if you may voice it. That way, they are on the spot to deny you an opportunity or agree to listen. It helps to restate the original point, so it's clear you understand it and to speak slowly and calmly. Watch the language you use doesn't get too judgemental. 

While 'Uncle Fred' is highly unlikely at five beers to hear anything in what you say that will change his opinion, your children will have been witness to you speaking up with finesse.

7. Stay true to yourself and don't let resentment creep in.

It's been a banger of a year (again) and we are all depleted. 

We need to go into this Christmas with some serious discernment. If everyone takes care of themselves and steps into whatever IS a comfortable fit and holds off judging how others show up, then things will go well. 

If we push against the current and force ourselves to push through doing things that aren't a fit, then we are ripe for over-extending ourselves, depleting our limited reserves and having the resentment cause us to rupture relationships left right and centre, and seriously, who has got the energy for all that right now?

We need to know our values, stick unapologetically to them while empathetically acknowledging that others may feel uncomfortable with whatever limits we are setting. 

Our kids need us with some fuel left in the tank. We won't have that if we give it all out to people who don't always deserve it.

Do you struggle to enjoy family Christmas? How do you plan to get through it this year? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.

Feature Image: Getty