Surviving The Family at Christmas

Let’s face it, we might all love our families, but that doesn’t mean we like them all the time. Christmas can be a stressful time of year, when relatives who have not spent any time together all year, suddenly converge in one place.  With them they bring memories, habits, routines and their own beliefs of ‘how Christmas should be’.   This article looks at the various personality types you may have to deal with over the festive period, and how to successfully do so.

The Passive Aggressive

Passive aggressive people do not tell you what they are angry about, they find it difficult to admit to their own negative emotions. So they express their anger, frustration, disappointment and even sadness in other, more subtle ways. Unfortunately, their way of dealing with these emotions is so destructive towards the other person, that they really end up doing more harm than good and it is impossible for the other person to know what the real problem is, so the Passive Aggressive person will probably never get the acknowledgement or the apology they want, their signals are too mixed up for others to really understand.

Christmas Time and the Passive Aggressive Personality

Maura: “Gosh Jean, that’s a very unusual colour in your top, I don’t know if I’d be brave enough to wear something like that….” Is this a compliment? No. What is the normal reaction to this kind of remark? An equally veiled insult, e.g.: Jean: “well, you know me Maura, I like to keep up with the current trends…” This is a very common reaction to a passive aggressive remark, match it with an equally passive aggressive remark. However, if you and your family are in the sitting room on Christmas Day, and you, Jean, react to Maura in this way, the others in the room won’t really remember that Maura started the sniping, they will simply see that Jean and Maura are at it again. What’s worse is that the passive aggressive person knows exactly who to target with their remarks to get the reaction, and the rest of the family can then sit back and let Jean take all the snippy remarks and veiled insults, knowing she will react and leave them out of it – it’s easier for everyone concerned! So, if you are a Jean, when Maura makes her first remark, simply ignore it. Pretend you didn’t hear it, pick up a glass and go to the kitchen, become distracted by one of the children – it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you DON’T REACT. What happens then is that Maura’s remark hangs in the air, and everyone else in the room really hears what she said, and they have to react. Do this a couple of times, and Maura will soon stop passing remarks, because she will realise that she is only showing herself up to everyone. If you think this is easier said than done, then I recommend a visualisation exercise. If you know you are spending the day with a Maura, take a minute before getting out of the car, or going to the door, and simply visualise a glass pyramid surrounding you, just around your own personal space. (It’s a good idea to practice this a little before the day). Visualise it really strongly and bring it into your consciousness. Then, when Maura makes her first remark, imagine her words hitting the outside of your pyramid, and then sliding off to the floor – AND NOT GETTING THROUGH TO YOU. If you can do this, you will be surprised at how effective it is in helping YOU not to react and get dragged in to other people’s negativity.

The Martyr

This personality type is the “poor me” of any family. This person excels at being a martyr and exuding an air of sufferance because they were left to do everything with no help (according to them), even though plenty of help might have been offered. When help is offered, the answer is usually “no no, it’s fine, sure I have it all done now” or something similar. However, once the dinner is over, this person is usually sitting in the corner, not relaxing, not joining in with the conversation, simply waiting for someone to ask if they are ok, to which the answer is usually: “Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just exhausted after all the preparations for today, I just want to relax now that I’ve finally got a chance to sit down”… and this remark puts everyone on edge and makes everyone feel either guilty, or annoyed.

 How to deal with the Christmas Martyr

If your family martyr is doing the Christmas dinner this year, I recommend that the rest of you (sisters/mother/in-laws) get together and draw up a plan of who will do what to ease the burden. It doesn’t have to be much, but e.g. Mary can bring the starter, mum can do her famous stuffing, Jean can bring the plum pudding and mince pies. Once you have all agreed what each will do, the nominated speaker (whoever is best at calming your family martyr down) rings her, e.g.: Mary: “Breda, myself, Jean and Mum were talking and really, it’s ridiculous that we all (1) expect just one person to do all the work every Christmas. (2) I know I’d just spend the whole day feeling guilty and embarrassed if I didn’t do something. so we’ve each just taken a little piece of the work to make it easier for you…..” What’s really important here is language. There is no blame, no fault, no finger pointing, and no patronising: Statement (1) – you are saying this is not just about you Breda, it’s about all of us every year (so it’s not personal) Statement (2) – speaking from the “I” position. “I would feel guilty…” so I am doing this to alleviate my own bad feelings, again, nothing to do with Breda. On the day, again by prior agreement Mary and Jean might assign tasks to themselves e.g. Mary keeps all the drinks topped up, and Jean clears the table after each course. Mum, if there are grandchildren, might referee the children’s squabbles. But the important thing is that Breda is not given any opportunity to feel put upon, or that she can claim in any way that she had to do everything. If she still puts on her martyr act after dinner, everyone can simply ignore it because they will know it is simply not true – there is no guilt for anyone else in the room because everyone contributed.

The Control Freak

This person simply wants to be in control of everything, and has no respect for boundaries. They will step in and discipline your children, they will issue the agenda for the day in such a way that it feels impossible to get out of it, and generally take over the proceedings. They may also be the one who insists that the family follow all the old traditions, e.g. insisting that everyone play charades after dinner, “because we always play charades on Christmas Day”.

Controlling the Control Freak at Christmas

Example: John is a controller. Your son Jamie is playing with John’s son Conor. Jamie takes a toy from Conor. John steps in, grabs the toy back from Jamie, hands it to Conor and says to Jamie “If I see you doing anything like that again you are in big trouble, sunshine”. This is absolutely not how you normally parent your child, so what do you do? Usually, one of two things happen: 1. We ignore it for the sake of peace but are really annoyed with John for the rest of the day, which creates an atmosphere (we may even become a bit passive aggressive in this situation!) or 2. We pull John up on it straight away in front of everyone else, causing a row and again creating an atmosphere. What should you do? Straight away, but calmly, you say “John, I’ll speak to Jamie now, he shouldn’t have taken the toy from Conor”, and then you speak to Jamie as you normally would in this situation. Second, you take John aside, away from everyone else, and you say: John, I’m working with Jamie in a particular way to help him understand sharing and taking turns, and I really want to be consistent so he gets the message. So I’d really appreciate it if you just call me if anything happens between the boys, and I will deal with Jamie immediately”. Again, in this situation, speaking from “I” is crucial. There is no blame, there is no giving out to John for what he did, you are simply, calmly and assertively, telling John what your boundaries are and asking him to respect them. If it happens again, then you may have to be stronger in your assertiveness, but again you take John aside, away from everyone else, and you explain what the consequences will be if he doesn’t respect your request to not reprimand your child, e.g.: “John, I don’t want Jamie or any of the other kids to get too upset today, for all our sakes, but I have already asked you to allow me to deal with him myself and that did not happen just now. If you are not prepared to respect me as his mother, then we will have to leave”. You must be prepared to follow through with whatever consequence you name, so don’t say you’ll have to leave if you know you won’t go through with it. The point of this example is to demonstrate how you put your boundaries firmly in place, and do not allow others to ignore them.

The Family Traditions at Christmas Time

This one is very tricky, or very simple, depending on how determined you are to break old patterns. Here are some examples: In your family of origin, you always: – Went to the children’s mass on Christmas Eve; or – Played charades after dinner; or – Opened your presents after dinner; or – Had spiced beef on Stephens Day…. etc etc etc. This used to happen when you were a child. This was your tradition as you were growing up. You are now an adult, married or in a relationship with someone else, and you have your own children. Your partner and your children are now your primary family, and as a primary family, you have every right to develop your own traditions. This may not go down well with your family of origin, but if you communicate it clearly, assertively and calmly, there is very little they can do other than accept it. Crucially, if they choose not to accept it and get all upset about it, you must remember that this is their problem, not yours.

Example 1: If you as a family want to go to Church on Christmas Day in your local parish church, or open the presents after breakfast with your children in your own house, or cook turkey curry for the family on Stephens Day, then simply go ahead and do it. If you get a call e.g. asking if you are joining the family for mass on Christmas Eve, you say “No, we won’t be there, the children want to go to mass here on Christmas Day so they can meet up with their school pals, but we’ll be down in time for a couple of drinks before dinner. We’re really looking forward to it”. And STAND FIRM. Your mother/sister/dad’s reaction is their problem, you are entitled to expect respect for your decision to do something new with your own family, so hold out for it.
Example 2: Mum: “No spiced beef Maura?” Maura: “No mum, to be honest I was never that mad about it and David and the kids can’t stand it, so it’s turkey curry on Stephens Day in our house now”.
I wish everyone a very happy, and peaceful, Christmas.