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Managing family tension at Christmas time

14 December, 2015

Having every family member under one roof at Christmas can sometimes be a recipe for disaster. You could have bickering siblings, grumpy grandpa, crazy aunts, a highly-stressed host, and even that one person who spends the entire day criticising everything and everyone.

You may also chat about the year that was, which of course opens up the question “what are your goals for the year ahead?” The pressure this question puts on people when they don’t quite know the answer can be enough to cause them to boil over.

The majority of the time, things will be pleasant and manageable. There will be times of laughter, times of sharing happy memories, times of beautiful bonding. But for all those joyful moments there will also be flashes when a person wants to run from the room, say what they really think or dodge a scrutinising stare. And that’s okay. A little bit of grumpiness and a desire for some alone-time is perfectly normal.

But what happens if those moments are more than just flashes? How do you manage the situation if it’s being ruled by conflict and stress? How do you turn a tense atmosphere into a happy one in the spirit of Christmas?

Read on for some tips that might help.

Firstly, it’s important to remember that when families gather, some members may not get along. You’re a family of individuals after all, and you all have your own unique personalities, ideals and characteristics.


One solution is to avoid family gatherings altogether, but this will quite often create further conflict and tension. Another solution is to address the issue and discuss the conflict in detail. But this too can add to the tension.

The better solution, in most cases, is to manage the merging of so many different personalities. This can be done in the following ways:

  1. De-emphasise the materialistic aspect of Christmas

    Research tells us that family gatherings are more satisfying when families remove the importance placed on the materialistic aspects of Christmas, (that is, the gifts). Instead, the emphasis should be on the positive aspects of family and togetherness, with the aim being to engage in “environmentally conscious consumption practices”.

  2. Remove old-to-young criticism

    Old-to-young criticism is a common cause of family fights at Christmas, with many parents/grandparents finding it an appropriate time to discuss the way adolescents live their life. Try to leave these sorts of conversations to another day.

  3. Avoid worldview discussions and political beliefs

    Discussing politics can make for an exciting conversation, but it will quite often end in conflict. Have you ever watched a Question Time that didn’t involve shouting? When someone feels passionate about something, they will rigorously defend it, so try to keep conversations light.

  4. Be sensitive to private space

    Whether you’re young, old or middle-aged, every person is entitled to their own space. When you’re an adolescent and your house is suddenly full of relatives, this can be hugely distressing - even more so if you have to give up your room for a random relative. Teenagers in particular might act out as a way to project their anger when they’re feeling smothered, so try not to force them to be social all the time.

  5. Try out new positive behaviours

    When a person suddenly finds they’re following the same age-old traditions and rituals, it can drag up unresolved feelings or bad memories. Instead of following old patterns that could trigger the opening of old wounds, try creating new positive behaviours that symbolise a fresh start. shutterstock_21057823

  6. Don’t judge others’ parenting techniques

    When you’re used to being the parent, watching someone else do it can be tricky. You may be tempted to offer your input and advice, but be careful that it doesn’t come across as criticism. Parents, and especially new parents, may become defensive or completely shut down when offered unwanted advice on how to raise their children.

  7. Be sensitive to new family members

    When new family members arrive, it’s important to discuss what their belief of Christmas is. That way you can try to tie in some of their own family traditions and rituals with your own to create a new, blended family gathering. Combining the two before adding new behaviours offers the feeling of moving forward, uniting the family to create a stronger unit.

  8. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself or another

    With so many people under one roof, it’s impossible to get equal time with everyone. Try to refrain from running yourself ragged by getting quality time with everyone, and don’t expect others to either. If it’s quality time you’re after, keep gatherings small.

  9. Put the kids’ needs before yours if you’re divorced

    If you’re divorced and find that you have to share Christmas, try to make it easy for the kids. Let them decide how they want the season to pan out, and accept their decision. Even better, lay down your sword and gather at the dinner table together. If they’re with you the whole festive period, make use of today’s technology and make regular scheduled “visits” through Skype or Facetime with their other parent.

  10. shutterstock_315032927
  11. Don’t be too lax with routine

    If you have very young children as part of the group, try to keep naptimes and bedtime as close to their normal schedule. Understand that their needs (and not their wants!) come first, even if it means you have to be assertive.

  12. Plan for fun

    Create moments that can be shared such as decorating cookies as a group, playing a game or doing a group puzzle will add a playful element to your family reunion.

  13. Try not to control everything

    Flexibility is essential at Christmas, so try not to get too caught up with the vision of a ‘Perfect Family Christmas’ - there’s no such thing. If you’ve planned dinner for two o’clock but people don’t feel hungry until three o’clock, it’s okay. If your teenage daughter wants to pop next door to say Merry Christmas to her BFF for an hour, that’s okay too.

  14. Look for the good

    It’s so easy to focus on the annoying behaviours of others, but what about turning your attention to the good ones? Highlighting the good assets and traits that people possess can help remind others what good people are before them.

  15. Create a mantra

    Repeating a mantra in times of angst can really help you to feel calm. Your mantra can be anything that makes you feel better about the situation, including words such as:

    Everyone here is doing their best
    I should try to be an example for everyone here
    Patience is the most powerful retaliation
    Anger only results in more anger
    There is no shame in responding with humility
    It’s only for a few days

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