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Coping with family at Christmas

Author: The Simple Bit

Category: Short Cuts

How might we approach this time of year so it’s more fun than dysfunctional?

The simple bits:


  • Christmas comes with its own set of hassles
  • It can be hard to fit back into family roles
  • Being alone can also be stressful
  • Remember – sometimes it’s ok to say no!



It’s getting scarily close to the pointy end of Christmas. And while the holiday season can be super fun, it does come with its own set of problems. Often we are even related to that set of problems. So how might you approach this time of year so it’s more fun than dysfunctional? We checked in with Dr Jo Mitchell, Clinical & Coaching Psychologist from The Mind Room.


What are some of the emotional issues that can come up around Christmas?

The festive season is a chance to celebrate and connect with family and friends. While it is meant to be a season of joy, it also comes with its own set of stressors, such as financial strain, family conflict or loneliness. We often have high expectations of ourselves and others that can be difficult to meet, especially if we are feeling burnout or overwhelmed at the end of a busy year. If you struggle with mental health issues already, then feeling like you have to act happy, get on well with family, or just be at your best, can be difficult. It is vital to take time to think about what you need to maintain your health and wellbeing during the festive season.


And what about the family issues that can come up at this time of year?

Family tensions can arise when we are thrown together and expected to execute a perfect Christmas experience, like a well-trained circus performance. If you are coming home for Christmas after being an independent adult for most of the year, it can be hard to fit back into your family role. You may have changed, but mum and dad still you as their little girl and treat you like you are 14 again. Or worse, they treat you like an adult that no longer gets Christmas gifts and is expected to wash the dishes and provide engaging conversation. Either way, you may have to gently reset your own, or others’ expectations.

If you are away from family at Christmas that can also create feelings of sadness or loneliness, whether it is due to work commitments, financial issues or by choice. If you are alone or not doing your usual family Christmas, still make plans. Get intentional about your non-family Christmas and create your own rituals – have an ‘Orphans Christmas’ with friends, cook up a storm, watch movies, turn the music up. Creating space for the things you enjoy can be fun and take your mind off being away from home at this time of year.


Are there particular coping strategies to handle tough conversations or people?

You may also find yourself spending time with a family member you do not like or have had conflict with in the past. If you are faced with a difficult uncle or hard-to-handle sister, take a breath. Think about how you want to be around them – polite but disengaged; kind but assertive; or maybe you want to attempt to repair the relationship? Either way, plan ahead and lower expectations of yourself, and them. What is realistic given the unique Christmas cocktail of food, booze, disappointing gifts, hot weather and end-of-year stress? Maybe there is a better time to confront them? Or perhaps you just need to have an escape strategy? If family relationships become strained or too intense can you go for a walk, take a nap, read a book, or play videogames with your nephew? A break and fresh perspective can do wonders.


Don’t forget to take some time for yourself. Photo by Nikola Jelenkovic.


What about saying ‘no’? How might we approach that?

Remember, even though this is the season of giving, you can still say no. No to travelling home for Christmas, no to all the social events and invitations, no to being upbeat and cheery all the time. You know yourself best and what you need. Other people may ask more of us than we are willing or able to give. While we can’t be hard on them for asking, we can politely and kindly maintain our boundaries by saying “Thank you, that sounds lovely, and I already have a commitment at that time.” They don’t have to know it is a commitment to your book, your bed, or yourself.


The holiday season doesn’t have to include a massive to-do list or be crammed with things you do out of obligation or tradition. Take a pre-Christmas moment to ask yourself “How do I want to spend my time? What is best for me?”. Spend your time with the people that matter and doing the things that are meaningful for you.


If you or someone you know needs urgent psychological support please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or see your GP or psychologist.