How to deal with relatives during the festive season

[Photo: Getty]
[Photo: Getty]

It’s the year’s finale, a time when everyone gets together to celebrate, have fun, eat, drink and be merry.

But like anything done with high expectations and a large cast, Christmas can be a bit of a let down. Especially when you spend half of it rowing with your family, and the other half worrying about rowing with your family.

Disagreements, awkward chats with that aunt you never see, children and pets running amok and a dry turkey can all turn the season of goodwill into the season of grumpiness. So to help you get through it as cheerfully, and successfully as possible, we spoke to integrative psychotherapist and life coach Hilda Burke, for her tips on how to deal with your relatives during the festive season.

“I find Christmas to be a time when many of my clients are brought back to their childhoods and those memories may not all be happy,” Hilda explains.

“Many of us, when we retreat to our family home, are confronted with parents and siblings who treat us as they always have done. No matter what we’ve achieved in the world outside the family unit, we can suddenly feel ‘less than’ with our siblings and parents.”

Image: Giphy
Image: Giphy

“As a result, many of us find ourselves reverting to our old child-like patterns of behaviour.

“How we perceive the other members in our family, and, in turn, how they perceive us has been developed at a very young age – in the case of our parents especially, our feelings towards them are created at a pre-verbal stage of development. So while we can be our competent, grown up adult selves at work and in our relationships, when we come back to our family of origin old patterns can very naturally emerge.

“How do we avoid this? Well, firstly try to remember to take a breath when you feel like your buttons are being pressed. A breath gives you the space to choose how to respond rather than just reacting and shooting from the hip.

“Other things that can help – try to avoid using ‘ you always….’ or ‘you never…..’. These statements never fail to antagonise and trigger defensiveness. If you have a problem with something someone is doing or not doing, point that out as calmly as possible without bringing in everything else that they’ve ever done to annoy you.”

Image: Instagram/Primark
Image: Instagram/Primark

Ignore social media

Beautiful Christmas dinners and families posed mid-hilarious anecdote might pop up all over your Instagram feed, Facebook might be awash with jolliness and perfectly-cooked turkeys. But be sure in the knowledge, no-one is really having that good a time the entire time. They’re just like you – making the best of it.

The first thing to drop is the idea that Christmas is going to be perfect. It’s not. It’s going to be mixed. Some of it will be lovely and heartwarming and celebratory. And some of it will be hard work, awkward and full of disagreements. Once you make peace with this you can keep your expectations realistic, enjoy the good bits and not let the bad bits overtake the whole event.

“It’s hard not to have the feeling that we “should” be having a perfect Christmas in harmony with our families,” says Hilda. “This is an unrealistic expectation, of course. Why should our relationships suddenly transform overnight?”

Hilda’s two big suggestions for the day itself are pretty simple – as long as you remember to do them. And they’ll have a big impact on keeping you calm, no matter what’s happening around you.


“First remember to breathe,” she says. “It sounds pretty obvious and yes we do it automatically… But family tensions, squabbles, disputes can cause us to breathe in a very shallow way which makes us feel even more tense.

“When things start to get stressful, just try and bring your attention to your breath. This simple trick can help slow us down and soothe us when things are threatening to fly off the handle.”

Set an alert on your phone, write ‘breathe’ on a post-it note, whatever you need to do to remember to take a few deep breaths regularly.

Image: Instagram/
Image: Instagram/

Take time out

“Secondly, take some time out – whether it’s for a walk alone or to listen to some music in your bedroom, time to oneself is really important during the festive season.”

Try picking a buddy for the day, someone you get on well with and who can back you up when you need a bit of time to yourself. This could be your mum, a sibling, a partner, whatever. Don’t use them for venting, simply let them know you’re having 15 minutes to yourself and let them keep everyone else off your back (just don’t forget to return the favour!).


And give yourself a calm anti-Christmas to look forward to. Be it Boxing Day or beyond, keep it to your immediate family or friends (whoever you really want to spend time with) and have a chilled out day of films and take away food where no one has to do anything and therefore, hopefully, no one will get stressed out and grouchy.



Ultimately, don’t lose sight of what’s important. Remind yourself regularly – this Christmas is not the be all and end all. It will go into the memory bank with all those other Christmasses that morph into each other. Spending time with family is important, even if it’s not constantly enjoyable. Just do your best, get through it and look forward to Not Going Out January.

It’ll be OK. You can do this.

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