Family memories are made at Christmas, but let's be real, sometimes it can also be tricky. Uncle John might not get on with cousin Mary, and what happens when someone says something inappropriate at the dinner table? We’ve put together some practical advice to help you navigate the festive period and make the most of your family time together.

When asked for tips on coping with Christmas, Dr Susan Byrne, lead counsellor with the Connolly Counselling Centre, says it comes down to three things – relationships, perspective and mindset.

“Christmas may be meaningful for some extended family members but not to others so it’s important to question the event itself. Are you choosing to celebrate with the family or is it that you feel obliged?”

If your answer is the latter, then automatically you’re going to come under pressure, she believes.

Prepare in advance

“It can then become a tactical situation but if you prepare yourself in advance, as in limiting time with certain family members if there are issues, and remembering that it is an occasion that happens only once a year, then we can all get through it,”she says.

Part of that preparation may be seeing the day from the other person’s perspective.

“If Christmas is important to a particular family member, it can be really helpful to try and see why, as opposed to imposing your particular view of Christmas on them. It’s about perspective rather than expectation. The whole idea that Christmas should be fun and a joyful occasion is a bit of a misnomer. It can be a painful occasion for some people, bringing up sad memories and sometimes feelings of regret,” says Susan.

Positive mindset

When it comes to keeping the peace at Christmas, it’s also important to remember that you can’t change anyone except yourself. Going into a situation with a positive mindset, therefore, is important.

“Mindset is incredibly powerful,” she says. “We’re in the driving seat at the end of the day. One of the easiest things for anyone to change is their attitude and it all starts with how we think. This influences how we feel and ultimately, directs our behaviour and our actions.”

Staying in the here and now is really important at Christmas, she believes, something that CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) can help.

“It’s very easy to get into our heads and go back three years when we had an argument with Uncle Tom or whoever but (staying calm) is about staying in the here and now, not in the there and then,” she says.

“If you find yourself in a situation with a family member that you don’t get along with (we can choose our friends but not our family), trying to change your mindset, even for the short period that’s involved, and doing something differently, can help enormously.

It can be easy to feel overwhelmed at Christmas.

“Try to have the attitude of ‘OK, I don’t particularly get on with x but I’m going to have to spend the day with them, so I’ll try to see things from their perspective’. If they are difficult people, there is a reason and if we can try to get behind that - and rise above it - we can actually become more centred and focussed and it doesn’t become such a big deal for us,” she says.

She agrees that doing this may not be easy, however.

“Yes, remembering that ‘it’s not all about us’ can be really difficult to do but if we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and try and get to their understanding, it can be enormously helpful. It’s not easy but it is doable and not just at Christmas, but throughout life.

“We need to be able to reflect on how they are seeing life and where they are coming from.”


What she calls ‘re-languaging’ can be helpful too.

“This means being aware of language and using it differently,” she says. “Some words can be oxygenated or loaded and others low key. By choosing different words we can create new ways of letting others know how we are and what we are thinking without offending anyone.”

She admits that this can sound like a lot of hard work but it’s worth it. “Instead of saying ‘you’re drinking too much, have you got a problem there?’ you could change it to ‘will I put on a pot of coffee on’ or ‘who’s up for a 20-minute walk around the block?’

Choose wisely

“Remember that you don’t have to attend every single event. You do have to be authentic and mind yourself,” she adds. “Boundaries can be really important too. It’s okay to say no to a dinner or whatever. Saying no to others for ourselves can be empowering. You don’t have to give long explanations either, keep it short but polite. Say ‘I’d love to join you but I can’t today but thank you for asking’.

Putting in breaks during the day can also help. “Taking yourself outside for a walk for half an hour can help you to re-enter the environment in a different, more relaxed headspace. It is within our control to keep it calm if that’s what we choose,” she says.

“It’s also our choice to exit, to step out if it’s not calm and beyond our control, if a row is brewing, for example. We don’t have to be in it, we’re not there to fix people.”

It’s also important to remember that some people choose to be on their own on Christmas Day.

“It comes down to personality. Not all of us need to be in a big hub of people to enjoy it. Many clients have mentioned how they enjoyed Christmas on their own where they didn’t have to worry about anyone but themselves.”CL

The HSE Your Mental Health Programme has this advice to help address the signs of stress:

Plan Ahead: Make a to-do list.

Sleep Well: Sleep helps you to think clearly and gives you the energy to deal with problems.

Breathing Exercises: This will help your mind and body get control of a difficult situation and they only take a few minutes to do.

Stretch Your Legs: Physical activity will help you sleep, relax and feel better.

Alcohol: Don’t overindulge. It is a depressant.

Practice Mindfulness: You can learn to not react or become overwhelmed by what’s going on around you by practising mindfulness.

Talk it Out: Telling someone about how you feel can help.

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