Love them or just tolerate them, time with our families can be... trying. We share our top tips on surviving the holidays with your loved ones – without letting major disagreements sour your relationships
‘You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family’ may not ring quite as true as it once did, as more and more of us see our friends as our families of choice. But it’s hard to deny that when it comes to the holiday season, many of us can feel an impending sense of dread. Whether it’s over politics or unwanted questions about our partners (or lack thereof), babies, or uncomfortable career queries, we’ve all got That One Big Topic we wish our families wouldn’t bring up over the dinner table.
Don’t get me wrong – I love my family, and I’ve even grown to love my partner’s family (something that past-me never would have thought I’d say), but I know that getting us all together over a single dinner table is like waiting for fireworks to go off. With half the table being die-hard Conservatives, the other half consists of a weird mixture of Green Party and Labour, it’s more than an elephant in the room when we’re all together. Not to mention the older generation badgering the younger about ‘when can I expect grandbabies?’ while the rest of us resist the urge to ask in return when we can expect to ship them off to a home, and... you can imagine, things can become pretty tense, pretty fast.
If you find yourself dreading big family get-togethers more than genuinely looking forward to the chance to catch up and spend quality time together, we’ve got you covered. Discover how you can get through the holidays without falling out with your loved ones.
How to survive Christmas without having a family fallout
1. Put politics on the backburner
When it comes to politics, some of us can be pretty apathetic, whilst others can be quite outspoken. Regardless of where you sit on the spectrum, declaring your family celebrations a politics-free zone can be the safer option. Park your judgements at the door, and ask if political discussions can be kept away from the dining table can help avoid things heating up when there’s nowhere to escape.
We aren’t saying everyone will listen to your request, but making your preference for a politics-free dinner clear early on can at least help set the tone and get things off to a gentler start.
2. Share the load
The holidays can be a pretty stressful time for everyone involved. Cooking, cleaning, organising when everyone is free, working around that one cousin who’s gone vegan (but didn’t remember to tell anyone until the weekend before your scheduled festivities) – really, it’s amazing we have the energy to do this annually.
If there’s one family member who usually shoulders the brunt of the organising, try and offer your help, or see if you can open up the conversation to how everyone can help and offer support. While one person may enjoy organising things and getting everyone together, the pressure of being the only one to organise things can lead to a growing sense of resentment or feeling overwhelmed. Even if they don’t take you up on your offer, letting your loved ones know you’re there and willing to help can go a long way towards paving the road towards a happier shared holiday.
3. Drink mindfully
Food and drink are often our focus points over the holidays, but that doesn’t mean alcohol has to be the focal point. While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a drink (or three), keeping an eye on your alcohol consumption can help you to feel more present in the moment, avoid feeling unwell the following morning, as well as helping you to avoid potentially harmful coping mechanisms.
Try different alcohol-free festive drinks, take things slowly, and practice saying no if you’re worried about others pushing you to ‘keep up’ with their drinking.
4. ‘Tis the season (to avoid sniping)
Muttered comments under your breath and sarcastic replies are never a fun feature of family get-togethers, yet still, we find ourselves making comments in group chats or in-person that, honestly? If we treated our friends like that (or vice-versa), we wouldn’t be putting up with that kind of behaviour.
Try and practice a little more empathy and understanding. Counsellor Greg Savva explains how you can practice empathy in your relationships:
“Try to be more inclusive. Don't seek to impose your point of view or emotions on someone else
“Try to be more inclusive. Don’t seek to impose your point of view or emotions on someone else and insist they hold the same values. Instead, try to show that you have taken your partners feelings and opinions into account. Reflect back the feelings, acknowledge and validate your partner, paraphrase their words or clarify what they have said.
“This shows you are willing to tolerate and respect others, [and] allows for a much more inclusive and collaborative way of relating to each other. It also shows that you aren’t trying to attack someone or criticise them, simply because you disagree.”
5. Compromise is key
Unless you’re That Family Member who has to have things their way (or they just won’t come), the fact of the matter is, you’re going to have to make some compromises. Whether that’s playing Monopoly (again), switching out the good cheese for a vegetarian-friendly substitute, or sitting at the kids end of the table, chances are you’re going to end up doing something you’d rather not – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Compromising can help show family that you value spending time with them and building memories together over having things just as you want them. When you get the reputation as ‘the easygoing one’, it can mean that you get the short end of the stick, but it can also buy you a lot of goodwill and warm, fuzzy feelings for making the day that much easier for everyone else.
If there are areas you’d rather not compromise on, such as avoiding certain topics or discussions, let it be known sooner rather than later. This way you can gently remind people and steer the topic in another direction if (or when) it comes up.
6. Focus on the positives
Not everything about family get-togethers is always stressful, right? If you’re struggling, try and think back on the things you have enjoyed from Christmas pasts. Family traditions, favourite films, boardgames that bring a smile, specific foods, even in-jokes that only your family gets. Think back and try to make a list of three festive things you enjoy. Can you do anything to try and incorporate them this year? Just keeping them in mind can help you to feel a little more positive about your planned time together.
7. Avoid disaster thinking (and identify your triggers)
As Counsellor Sophie Thorne, PG Dip MBACP Accred explains, Christmas can be a difficult time for many of us. But by recognising the areas that cause us the most stress and avoiding disaster thinking, we can set ourselves up for a less emotionally draining Christmas.
“Christmas can feel difficult for many people, due to different types of stresses. How can you help yourself? Watch your triggers. Think about what may feel difficult for you from past experiences and devise ways to manage your response. Don’t succumb to catastrophic thinking. [Instead ask] what are you in control of? What could be different? What resources do you have?
“Remember that you’re not alone: it may look like others are having a great time, but many are coping with difficulties of their own. What you see is not always the whole story.”
8. Get out
For my other half, boredom is his single biggest pet-peeve of family functions. If you find yourself dreading the thought of vegging in front of the TV as A Muppet Christmas Carol plays on repeat, try suggesting a family walk or going out on one by yourself, with the family pet or your partner. Removing yourself physically from the situation can help you to feel refreshed, energised, and ready to try another rousing round of Trivial Pursuit.
9. Establish boundaries
If you have a family group chat on WhatsApp or Facebook Messanger, talking through any serious no-go topics or things you would prefer to avoid talking about ahead of time can be a godsend. This could include agreeing not to bring up politics, avoiding baby talk, or even agreeing that no-one will be upset if you need to take a breather and grab a little alone-time away from everyone.
While this can be easier said then done when it comes to bigger family gatherings, letting closer loved ones know what you are and are not comfortable being asked or talking about this Christmas can help highlight to them when you may need support or a tactful change of topic if you do get cornered.
10. Treat yourself with kindness and compassion
Self-care isn’t just the other 364 days of the year; it’s something we can (and should) try to incorporate throughout our lives. These self-care tips mental wellness experts swear by are a great place to get started.
The holiday season may be a time for family, but remind yourself: you can’t pour from an empty cup. If you don’t look after yourself and your wellbeing, you won’t be in the right place to help support others. It may be a cliche, but self-care really isn’t selfish.
11. Lead by example
Take charge and steer the conversation in ways that you know won’t make people uncomfortable. If need be, prepare yourself a list of ‘safe’ conversation topics as a fallback plan if things are starting to get uncomfortable. Deflecting to the type of typical workplace cooler conversations about your favourite TV shows, planned holidays, or even your top moments of the past year are all lukewarm conversation topics, but at least they’re generally conflict-free ones.
Remember: you don’t have to wait for the worst to happen or dread those conversations. Lead the way and start creating conversations that don’t make you cringe. Your family will thank you for it. Seriously.
12. Keep it short and sweet
Don’t feel pressured to stay too long. We’ve developed a bit of a reputation as the couple that always leaves first. But you know what? That works for us. It also means that we’re chilling in our pjs getting some much-needed downtime while other members of our families are still making awkward small talk.
The less you try to force things (be that staying long, or long conversations as, let’s be honest, awkward silences are practically a British holiday tradition) the more space there is for things to develop naturally. You can’t force good cheer, and that’s OK.
13. Leave the past in the past
It’s easy to dwell on past bad holidays or sour conversations, but staying stuck in the past can sour the present and ruin the moment. To help avoid further confrontations or continued arguments, try to embrace the moment and focus on the here and now.
14. Agree to disagree
If your family can’t put politics (or other big topics) to one side, be the bigger person. It doesn’t help anyone when one or both sides take the stance that they are morally superior, or refuse to be open to genuine discussion and debate. If things are getting heated, it could be time to interject: ask each side of the discussion to take a moment to pause, and recall at least three main points or concerns the opposite side has raised during the conversation. If either side can’t do this, it’s time for them to recognise they aren’t having a discussion anymore – they’re trying to prove that they’re right, and maybe now isn’t the right time for this.
15. Put yourself out there
We all have that one relation we’re not so close to, or the partner of a loved one that still feels out of place. Make an effort to sit or speak with them and make them feel more included. This can help to build relations (and serious good-will for future gatherings).
16. Act your age
When you go home for a family celebration, many of us have the habit of falling back into old, familiar patterns. While yes, we’ll always be our parents’ babies, acting in this way can open the way to old disagreements or unflattering behaviours.
Offer a helping hand with any cooking, cleaning, or even just making a round of tea and topping up drinks. This can help to take the pressure off of whoever is hosting the get-together and can help give them a breather – and a little more support to make their day that bit easier.
17. Focus on your reactions, not theirs
It can be frustrating when you agree on boundaries or certain things to avoid beforehand, and someone doesn’t stick to the script. Try and recognise that while you can’t change others, you can still control your reaction. Avoid the urge to sink to their level and try to take the high ground. Take care of yourself first, whilst still trying to be empathetic to those around you. You can’t win them all, but you can do your best to be kind to yourself (and others).
18. If all else fails: bribery
Well, it’s more like set yourself up with rewards to help ease the way. Giving yourself something to look forward to for making it through family time can be a huge motivator. Maybe that’s promising yourself a day at home in your pjs, setting aside an evening for you and your partner to create your own traditions, or treating yourself to the kind of ‘real’ food you wish you could have had instead of that bland, beige buffet so many mums and nans put on over the holidays. Find that one thing that you can really look forward to, and set it up as a reward for making it through all of the stress and family politics.
19. Know your limits
As one counsellor explains, the holidays can add a lot of stress and pressure that can make it a pretty miserable time. From financial pressures to social expectations, the season can be filled with an overwhelming sense of disappointment and dread. Yet getting to know and recognise your limits could help you to feel like Christmas is less of a struggle.
“Recognise that reality isn’ going to be exactly like your expectations. The easiest way of interrupting the disappointment pattern is to become aware of doing it - while you're doing it. And you'll find that in this way, gradually, the times when you become disappointed become fewer, the duration of the disappointed much shorter, and the intensity of the disappointment much less.
Aim for enjoyable, not perfect. Keep expectations manageable
“Aim for enjoyable, not perfect. Keep expectations manageable. Recognise that being together 24/7 may cause tensions, and allow for this. Find time for yourself, and don’t spend all your time providing activities for your family and friends.
“Know what your limitations for contact are. Don’t feel guilty if you need some time out for yourself. Determine how involved and accommodating your plans should be well in advance, and make your limits known to others involved.”
20. Ask yourself: is this worth it?
With more and more of us choosing to go it alone or having friend-based celebrations, it’s worth reminding yourself that family ‘fun’ isn’t your only option over the holidays. It’s time to put yourself first, and question if the environment is right for you.
21. Practice gratitude, not guilt
It’s great to be, well, grateful for what you’ve got – friends, family, loved ones, a celebration – but if you find yourself struggling, there’s no need to feel guilty. Yes, it’s a privilege to have a family that loves you (no matter what bumps there may be along the way), but that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or the biggest Christmas Scrooge for acknowledging that things aren’t perfect.
Take a few moments to yourself to just sit and focus on all of the things you are grateful for happing this year. Acknowledge the areas that have been trying. No matter how you are feeling, your experiences and emotions are valid. There isn’t a right or wrong way to experience the holidays. You do you.