The recently released comedy Surviving Christmas With The Relatives tells the story of a family’s Christmas get-together at their parents’ deceased estate. Everything seems well at first. However, as the day progresses, tensions build and old grudges and rivalries resurface. Eventually, people’s personalities and character gets the better of them, and things descend into chaos.
While the film is a comedy that’s obviously meant to entertain, it nonetheless touches on something that many people begin to realise as they become adults. This is that, under the goodwill and cheer of the holiday season, Christmas Day can actually be a tense and stressful occasion.
Why is that?
Check out: 5 more Christmas survival tips
Surviving Christmas with the in-laws
Christmas get-togethers are often an occasion where family members who might not spend much time together during the year suddenly find themselves lumped in the same room for an entire day.
When people don’t see much of each other it’s often due to work, travel distance, kids, study, illness or other responsibilities. However, there may be other reasons. For example, some family members just don’t get along as well as they’d like to.
This means that Christmas can be a day where some people feel like they’re very much out of their comfort zone — and these feelings can be intensified with everything else going on.
The weather’s usually hot, the day is long and intense, and grog usually gets consumed. Huge meals, kitchen dramas or overexcited or misbehaving children can feel really draining. Then there are the time pressures and traffic snarls that come with travelling between parents or in-laws’ places.
No wonder tensions can boil to the surface.
“Christmas can bring out underlying conflict or rivalries between siblings, cousins, grandparents or other relatives.”
Don’t rise to the challenge!
A family get-together at Christmas can be a daunting environment for an in-law.
One common situation is for someone to have a problem with comments made at your expense, or at the expense of your partner or children. The person saying it might think it’s ‘good-natured’ ribbing, while you’re left to silently grit your teeth.
As mentioned, there may be reasons why people at these events haven’t seen each other since the previous year. This could come out as little digs or passive-aggressive comments. Big sleep-inducing meals, general tiredness, and alcohol can further contribute to little comments becoming flare-ups.
Christmas can bring out underlying conflict or rivalries between siblings, cousins, grandparents or other relatives. They might be staking out their “authority” by “having a go” at an unsuspecting in-law, or they might feel the need to ‘big-note’ themselves. It is also a fact that some people have an emotional need to instigate or thrive off reactions or drama.
Being on the receiving end of this behaviour can be upsetting, especially if you’re simply trying to be on your best behaviour. However, you don’t have to just sit there and fume.
5 ways to deal with (adult) behaviour on Christmas
If someone says something unkind, your first instinct might be to call it out or give them a serve. However, while you might believe in the heat of the moment that doing so is highly satisfying, there’s a high chance you’ll regret the consequences.
The reason that put-downs and insults are upsetting is that they are usually unexpected. One moment you’re having a friendly chat when suddenly, whack, there’s the back-handed compliment or put-down. What can you do next, especially if it’s in front of other people?
“One moment you’re having a friendly chat when suddenly, whack, there’s the back-handed compliment or put-down. What can you do next, especially if it’s in front of other people?”
1) Ask yourself, why is this person behaving in this way?
Are they just trying to get a rise out of you? Could it be because they grew up fighting to be heard (maybe they were the youngest of many siblings)? Are they bitter or unhappy about something in their life? Or are they masking their insecurity behind a prickly exterior? It doesn’t excuse the behaviour, but understanding it might help cool your emotional response.
It’s also worth remembering that you may very well not be the only one. If someone is carrying on, then there’s a high chance you’re not the only in-law or family member who cops it.
2) Ask yourself, does what they said actually affect my day?
The grandmother who makes backhanded compliments about “how lovely to see you, it’s been so long since your last visit” will probably not change her ways. When someone says something unkind, ask yourself whether what was just said has any true effect on the rest of your day. Again, it doesn’t make the behaviour ok, but it can help you enjoy your day more. Christmas will still happen, regardless of whether you get mad, or whether you forget about it.
3) Will how I respond be more harmful than what was actually said?
Anger is a powerful emotion. It can seemingly come from nowhere and in great force, which is one reason why it can be so damaging. People who are angry may find that they end up doing things that they wouldn’t normally — and often they regret it after.
Although anger is a normal emotion that humans have evolved with (for example, as a way of dealing with danger), excessive anger can damage your relationships, social standing and even affect your physical health.
If you sense that you’re getting frustrated, think about what you’re about to do next. Is it worth losing it? Will what you say next help you and your family enjoy the rest of Christmas?
Keep it cool and you’ll hopefully spare yourself a whole lot of guilt or remorse.
4) Can I change the subject?
A simple way to avoid unwanted discussions is to avoid those topics altogether. If you feel the conversation is going somewhere you don’t like, you could try changing the topic.
One trick is to mention how what is being talked about right now reminds you of something else, then steer things towards that topic instead. Another is to acknowledge a good question, then ask the other person a different question. Or you could pretend that you haven’t kept up to date about something.
If they keep at it, you might be able to say something like “listen, I’d prefer not to talk about it” or “let’s talk about something else”.
Not talking about something won’t make an underlying problem or disagreement go away. However, it can help prevent tense or difficult discussions on Christmas day. Hopefully, this will allow for things to be calmly talked about and resolved at another time.
5) Do I need to take the bait?
It takes a mastery of self-control, but it’s possible to acknowledge ‘hidden’ insults and condescending remarks in a way that subtly calls out the bad behaviour but also makes it clear you won’t give in to the reaction the other person wants.
If you must respond, the key is to not show anger — but still put an end to the undesired remarks.
Basically, don’t take the bait.
When your aunt is commenting about the shortness of your skirt when she says “What’s the matter, couldn’t afford more material?” simply respond with “What an unusual thing to say” or “Ok.”
As for unwelcome questions about “When are you going to have kids?” there are different ways around it. They range from cheeky humour (“we were going to get started later tonight” or “well not for another nine months at least”) to more serious (“it’s one of the biggest decisions in life” or “I’ll let you know when or if we’re ready”).
You still might not get the desired response. However, trying to soften things is generally better than losing your temper.
Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.