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  • Writer's pictureDr. Paul D'Alton

How to deal with family friction at Christmas time

Christmas can be one of the most emotional times of the year, it is also one of the most demanding.

Out of focus Christmas tree with presents underneath it.

Feeling a little tired, a little frazzled, given the run-up to Christmas? Maybe a little anxious about the days to come surrounded by family? Well, you're not alone.

Christmas can be one of the most emotional times of the year, it is also one of the most demanding - lots of socialising, endless lists, presents, groceries and Christmas cards still to send!

Christmas has the potential to drive us up the walls, along with the potential to be a time of real closeness with loved ones, great fun and making and re-living wonderful memories, if we can manage the stress that comes with it.

The hierarchy of Christmas

For some people, there have been months of negotiation, sometimes subtle and behind the scenes, about who we spend Christmas day with.

There’s a kind of unspoken hierarchy of importance for many concerning who we spend Christmas day with or who gets 'relegated’ to St Stephen’s Day.

In many ways, who we spend these days can be seen as a declaration – a declaration of affection, or a declaration of the place someone plays in your life. It declares: you matter to me.

It also calls on the grown-up in us, the adult version of ourselves to go beyond our personal preferences and do the bigger thing.

It is right here that the real work of love comes into action because sometimes we have to go beyond what we would like in the service of family or our wider community.

But we have also got to be brave here – we may need to break out of a groove that is not working for anyone.

It’s a time of year for traditions

We are creatures of habit who are living in a world of constant change.

The human brain is drawn to the opposite of change; it is drawn to sameness, to replication and repetition.

Christmas is all about tradition and traditions are our way of creating habits and rituals that are deeply comforting to us humans.

This time of year is full of ritual and repetition - we eat the same types of food year after year, we listen to the same music, watch the same films and some of us even re-read the same books.

Christmas provides us with a big dose of the familiar and predictable that we don’t even know we need.

The adult brain seeks the familiar, the younger brain seeks novelty - this is what sometimes underlies the clash that happens at home over Christmas.

'Christmas Regression’

Many of us will be heading back to childhood homes in the next few days or reuniting elsewhere with people we spent our childhoods with.

We find ourselves with our ‘first family’ - this is the family we didn’t choose. When this happens, we can very quickly, almost automatically, return to the role we played in the family all those years ago.

We can find ourselves catapulted back decades when we regroup as a family under the same roof.

The Christmas time warp happens and suddenly I’m 12 again. This is called 'Christmas Regression' - and it is to be expected!

All the progress we make in becoming reasonably well-functioning adults making our way in the big bad world can evaporate in the company of our ‘first family’.

The emotional reservoir that is the family never really loses its power, no matter how old we get.

Over the next few days

Take it as a given that we’re probably all going to feel some strong emotions over the next few days. That’s entirely normal, so expect them and prepare for them!

When it comes to emotions, it's really important to remember that it’s estimated that emotions have about a 90-second life-span if we just let them be.

The problem is we can make emotions last for hours, days or months sometimes by going after them and adding stuff to them.

We add judgements, evaluations, and a whole heap of commentary like ‘it’s not fair’, 'I’m useless’, ‘this always happens to me’ and so on.

Doing this extends the life of an emotion way beyond its 90-second shelf-life.

The antidote to much of the tension we will experience over Christmas can be summed-up in two words: Get Outdoors.

There is a growing body of evidence that says getting out into green and blue spaces such as parks, to the beach and up the mountains is really helpful to our mental health.

Getting into green and blue spaces might be the best thing we can do for ourselves in order to manage the inevitable family friction the festive season brings.

Originally published on 24/12/2020.


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