Easing Family Tension at Christmas


Leonardo Rocker

Easing Family Tension at Christmas

It seems that few of us are immune to the occasional family spat and many of us will experience even long term ongoing tension within our family. At no time is this more apparent than at Christmas and often when the decorations go up the gloves come off! You only have to ask around to hear stories about board games gone bad and disagreements about where to eat Christmas lunch ending in a grumpy family eating ham and cheese sandwiches at home.

Arguments may start over everything from when exactly decorations should be allowed out of storage to whether or not a hot lunch is appropriate in Sydney on a 40 degree day. Add to this the “factions” that can develop within larger families along with a good dose of general family angst and you have a recipe for disaster. Why is it that at Christmas we can experience such excitement and yet such distress all at the same time? More importantly, how can you ease the tension in the hope of little more comfort and joy?

Christmas tends to be a time of heightened expectations. That added pressure means that we are all on edge trying a little too hard to make things just right (and we all have a different idea about what “just right” means). There also tends to be the slight feeling of going stir crazy when you are spending long periods of time with a group of people that you usually only see all together once or twice a year. Also, it doesn’t help that Christmas in general is a stressful time with calendars full of events and budgets at breaking point. Many of us are so stressed that it is no wonder that tensions arise.

Family involves a lot of emotion and even a lot of history. Most of your family know which buttons to press (or not press) and you know the same about them. Family members often feel the need to give advice without being asked and parents often have trouble seeing adult children as “grown ups”. In addition to this, we don’t tend to be very polite with our family so manners go out the window and honesty steps in.

Remember that when you have an emotional response that your body is likely going into fight-flight-freeze mode which means that systems throughout your body are kicking into action. Many years ago this would have helped you flee from danger and hunt down your dinner but it doesn’t help you to carve a roast or have a civil conversation with a sibling so you may just need some time out to cool down so you can deal with the situation in a level headed way. If you are in a situation of ongoing tension with your family your body may be going through this response many times throughout the day so it may not just be the brandy on the pudding and the tryptophan in the turkey that leaves you desperate for a Christmas afternoon nap.

Once your head is level, or even to prevent it becoming off-kilter in the first place, here are some more tips to help minimize the family tension:

  • Be a good guest. Respect the rules, values and routines of the house you are in even if you feel things are not going the way you would have them go in your own home.
  • Choose your battles. Ask yourself, is it worth it? How big a deal is this really? If other family members are being negative you can make the decision to step back and not let yourself be affected by this. If its not worth mentioning or getting into a fight about, let it go.<
  • Listen more than you talk. You don’t have to agree with the person you are talking to but you also do not need to prove that you are right about everything. On boxing day, would you rather be looking back at the fun you had as a family, or reflecting on your victory over Uncle Max’s political views? A little “Mmhmmm”, “Oh?” and “I can see how you feel” goes a long way
  • Take a break and offer breaks to others if it seems like they need it. If someone is getting on your nerves, take a quick drive to pick up some more ice. If a Mum in the family is looking overwhelmed, offer to take the little ones outside for a game.

Remember that Christmas is meant to be a fun time and that it is not just about pleasing others. At the same time, it is important not to put too much pressure on yourself to be feeling hunky-dory all day long. Its ok to feel annoyed, frustrated or upset by how family members are behaving but making them feel the same way will probably only make matters worse. Just take a deep breath and enjoy the slightly humid but still festively pine-scented air.

The Quirky Kid team had a few more ideas:

  • “Use organisation and time management to keep your stress levels down in the lead up to the big day. If you are already stressed up to your eyeballs you will be more likely to blow your top when someone makes an unwelcome comment” - Lisa (Psychologist)
  • “Breaking up the routine with a lot of different and new activities to keep things fun and interesting for all invoice. Ask grown-ups to introduce and play the old games with everyone” -  Leo (Practice Manager)
  • “Make Xmas structured and predictable by asking family members to help with setting up or cooking different dishes. Having a plan for the day with timeframes for dinner and presents so that everyone is prepared and relaxed. Create separate areas for mingling is also helpful in avoiding tension and that plenty of music and fun activities for the kids but not too much alcohol is advisable - Kimberly O’Brien (Child Psychologist).

Further Reading


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