Behaving yourself this Christmas

Mindfulness and gratitude disappear into a black hole as soon as your grandmother starts telling you you're not peeling the potatoes correctly. Photo: Getty Images
Mindfulness and gratitude disappear into a black hole as soon as your grandmother starts telling you you're not peeling the potatoes correctly. Photo: Getty Images

Dealing with difficult relatives can be testing during the festive season, writes life coach Jan Aitken.

Jan Aitken
Jan Aitken

Comedian George Burns once said: "Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family ... in another city.'' 

While we might giggle about the quote, I'm sure it rings a bell somewhere within most of us, especially during the "festive'' season.  For many, the tradition of getting together with family can be fraught with all sorts of feelings and issues.

Families aren't always made up of people we'd choose as our friends and can provide us with some tricky situations to deal with. You can put half of your life's savings into counselling and then within 15 minutes of a family get together your assertiveness training goes out the window when your brother has his traditional temper tantrum.

Mindfulness and gratitude disappear into a black hole as soon as your grandmother starts telling you you're not peeling the potatoes correctly and you'll never get a husband/wife while you "dress like that''. Patience finally tips into rage when Great Uncle Murgatroyd has one too many ciders (again) and belligerently starts expounding his views on anything and everything!

While that might all be laid on a bit thick, the truth remains that Christmas and New Year can be difficult to navigate. Here are some things to think about to help you survive.


Before the gathering, spend some time thinking about how you want to behave. If you've experienced unpleasant family gatherings in the past, think about why they were unpleasant. What aspects do you have control over and what could you do to change the dynamics of the situation? Do you need to get more sleep before the big day? Would it be better to give yourself more travel time to avoid rushing and becoming stressed? How about picking a seat far away from Great Uncle Murgatroyd?


There are too many variables to achieve that. Besides, humans aren't perfect, so it's likely there'll be a fly in your perfect-day ointment. The Christmases in picture books and romantic movies are exactly that - made up. Reality is a whole lot less predictable. Lowering your expectations will also lower your stress levels and chances are you'll all enjoy the day more.


If the gathering is at your home, set boundaries around what behaviour you will and will not tolerate and be clear about consequences if those boundaries are crossed.

Some families have barred adult children from holiday meals because they have ruined so many previous family gatherings. If possible make the boundaries known before the day and be prepared to apply the consequences if they are crossed. It's crucial to think about boundaries before, not during, a family gathering. Prior to the event, think through what boundaries you want to set and what the consequences will be if crossed. For example, picking a fight will not be tolerated and if it happens the aggressor will be asked to leave and not invited to future gatherings you host. Only when behaviours change should you lower the boundaries.

If you are visiting relatives then you may have to accept their boundaries. However, if a gathering becomes unpleasant, you can always excuse yourself and make an early exit!


You don't have to spend the day with anyone in particular. However, you may choose to because it causes fewer arguments and cuts down on snide comments from those who feel "snubbed''. After all, it's only one day in the year. If that is what you do, be honest with yourself - after all, it's your choice. And it's a thoroughly valid one. Being honest about it can help keep feelings of resentment in check and no-one wants resentment bubbling over on Christmas day.


If you want to spend the following Christmas doing something different, let family members know early in the year, don't suddenly drop it on them at the last minute. If they respond huffily, accusing you of not loving the family or breaking the family up, remember that's their opinion/belief. You have no control over that. Just be prepared that you might not get the response you want. You can explain why you are choosing to do your own thing, but you don't have to justify your choices.

In my November 12 column (, I wrote about making the most of Christmas, go back and have a read, see if it's time to re-jig your traditions.


Would getting together be less daunting if you had a plan to leave after no more than four hours? Or three? Two? One? Would you breathe easier if you took your own car, so you could get away without relying on others? Could you agree to get together every second year, so you can do your own thing every other Christmas? What would make it easier?.

Gretchen Rubin (author of The Happiness Project) has some sensible advice about family gatherings. Here's two that stand out.

Dodge strife. Some families enjoy arguing among themselves; however, most don't handle arguments very well. If you know Uncle Bobby's view of the election is going to drive you crazy, don't bring it up! And if he brings it up, try to make a joke of it, and say something like, "Let's agree to disagree,'' "Let's not talk about that, and give the rest of the family something to be thankful for,'' etc.

Don't drink much alcohol. It can seem festive and fun to fill up your glass, but it's easy to lose track of how much you're drinking. Alcohol makes some people feel merry, but it also makes some combative, or self-pitying, or lowers their inhibitions in a destructive way. If others seem to be trying to avoid alcohol or curb their drinking (or their eating, for that matter), don't make a big deal of it or urge them to indulge. You do your thing and let them do theirs.

You might be thinking, these strategies don't tell me, specifically, how to deal with my difficult relatives - they tell me how to behave myself. You'd be right! You can't change your difficult relatives or what they are going to do - you can only change yourself. And when you change, a relationship changes.

Thanks for taking the time to read the columns through the year. I'll be taking a break until early next year. I hope you have an enjoyable, safe festive season and new year and I look forward to being back with you in 2018.

Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

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