“This Christmas … a bit of my feeling is dreading it, and then half of it is, ‘Oh, it’ll be nice to gather’, as well.”
Stephanie is far from alone in feeling a mix of dread and eager anticipation when it comes to family getting together at Christmas.
When we asked ABC Life followers on Instagram to tell us how they feel about going home to celebrate the festive season with family, we noticed certain things kept popping up.
People look forward to good food, catching up with loved ones and nostalgia when visiting your childhood haunts.
If you’ve concluded that festive family gatherings as you know them are just not working, we also have some suggestions for completely reimagining them.
We’re helping you prepare for a family Christmas with some advice from experts about how to handle the tough stuff, so you can focus on the good.
Tackling ‘nasty’ comments and arguments
Katrina from Melbourne says she loves parts of Christmas, but finds some of the opinions expressed by her fiancé’s family hard to deal with, particularly those about her weight.
“They just hit hard with questions that really are none of their business,” she says.
“I think their internalised fat-phobia is projected onto me. It’s not my job to educate them on that.”
Plan what you will say to change the dynamic
Adriene “Addy” Cobcroft is a Hobart-based counsellor specialising in relationships and families and says if you dread having the same arguments with certain people, then you’re almost setting yourself up to keep doing it.
“The idea that I would suggest is to challenge your own thinking around that. What would I want to happen differently, set myself some different goals.”
Ms Cobcroft suggests planning what you will say to the person you often fight with and decide whether you want to tackle the subject, deflect it or just not engage if you feel they’re trying to bait you into arguing.
It’s also important to remember you can only be responsible for yourself in these situations, you can’t control anyone else.
“We really can’t change how someone else behaves,” she says.
Dealing with drama-loving (and causing) relatives
Katrina says while she enjoys spending time with her parents and siblings, her sister often starts arguments and creates drama, which she hates seeing.
“I want to call my sister out on her behaviour so bad, but I don’t think it’s worth the repercussions of my mum having to deal with her daughters fighting,” she says.
Set boundaries and remember it’s not about you
Ms Cobcroft says the main thing to remember when someone is acting in a way we dislike is that we can’t control them, we can only control how we respond.
“It’s really important to get a fix on ‘What is my role here?'” Ms Cobcroft says.
She suggests if you aren’t directly involved in the drama, you can point out the bad behaviour gently to those involved just to let them know it’s not appropriate.
“You might sit them down and say, ‘If you guys do that shouting across the table thing with each other, I can’t manage myself emotionally, I don’t want to be present with that, so what I’m going to have to do is I’m going to get up and leave the table’,” she says.
Steve Barker, a senior counsellor with Relationships Australia, Tasmania, says having a mantra you repeat to yourself can be calming.
“If it’s the family bully, your mantra is, ‘This isn’t about me. This isn’t about me. This isn’t about me’. It has a calming effect, if you allow it to,” he says.
Mr Barker says it’s also important to remember that Christmas is just one day, and it may only be a few hours during lunch when you have to put up with this person. You can get through it.
Dealing with invasive, unwanted questions
Steph lives in Shanghai, China, with her husband where she works as a counsellor mostly with expat kids and teenagers.
She loves coming back to Newcastle in NSW to see family at Christmas, but persistent questions on “what’s next” can get too much.
“Next steps questions are all about when will we ‘finally’ move home. The bane of our existence!” she says.
“These questions lead me to feel pretty guilty and frustrated that I can’t give them an answer they would be remotely satisfied with.”
Write a script to follow for unwanted or invasive questions
Ms Cobcroft says you usually know what sorts of questions you will be asked by family at Christmas, particularly if you’re seeing family you don’t often see.
She says the best way to handle those tricky questions is to come prepared.
“I would suggest sitting down and writing a list of those things and … coming up with a response that’s true to yourself, but is also compassionate to the other person,” she says.
Be prepared for them to not be happy with your answer and they might still try to argue you around to their thinking. Just remember it’s not up to you to fix their issues, says Ms Cobcroft.
“It’s their stuff, it’s not my job to sooth mum’s anxiety about wanting grandkids [for example].”
Mr Barker agrees it’s best to prepare answers to the typical questions before you get there.
He says it’s also fine to tell them you don’t want to talk about that now, but try to then change the subject to something else to keep the conversation flowing so the person doesn’t feel shut down and too awkward.
And if they’re really getting to you, get away from them for a bit.
“Go away, take a break,” Mr Barker says.
“You might find a reason to go a walk around the block or pat the dog … it’s only a day, you can push through that.”
Finding time to yourself when family gets too much at Christmas
Emma works in Alice Springs in community development. She’s lived in the Northern Territory for six years, which she says is a very different pace of life to Sydney where she grew up.
She loves getting to see her family when she visits, but finds herself getting tired out by all the social events and busy city.
“I cherish seeing all the people I love,” she says.
“However, the difference between life in Alice and life in Sydney is so significant that I find visiting the big city exhausting.
“When we visit and find people are coming over every day that we are there it starts to feel like there’s no chance of down time.”
Set realistic expectations and boundaries on what you are prepared to commit to
Finding yourself overwhelmed by family and the pressure of Christmas is common and the best way to get through it is having realistic expectations, says Mr Barker.
Many of us will have multiple family groups to visit on Christmas Day and preparing yourself for the reality that will be tiring will help you cope, says Mr Barker.
He suggests setting yourself time limits on how long you’ll be at each event, and also work that out beforehand and have a conversation with the family about how far you are prepared to travel.
Are you prepared to drive three hours for lunch at mum’s then back again for dinner with dad? If not, let them know and suggest an alternative.
Mr Barker and Ms Cobcroft suggest booking a night or two away from the family if you’re visiting for a couple of weeks, to give yourself some space and a place to escape to for peace and quiet before tackling the next gathering.
If Christmas isn’t working for you, why not change it?
Stephanie in Melbourne says Christmas is an important time for her to spend with family and celebrate their Christian faith and traditions.
At the past few Christmas gatherings her family have started a new tradition of singing around the piano together.
“We didn’t grow up with this, but on my mum’s side all the brothers and sister were in the choir and would sing at church,” she says.
“The last five years or so, after dinner, we’ll sit around the piano and sing carols. We didn’t do that before, I don’t know why we suddenly started up again, but it makes it special.”
Have a conversation about the Christmas you want in your family
If Christmas is stressing everyone and bringing more pain than joy, maybe it’s time to talk about changing what you do next year.
While it’s usually not the best thing to suggest changing things during Christmas lunch, talking to your family about what it means to you all to be together can help find new ways of doing things.
“If the venue has always been a particular person’s house and that rubs people up the wrong way, then go to the gardens, go to the beach, negotiate something different,” Mr Barker says.
Ms Cobcroft says her family had very traditional Christmases when she was growing up.
“If something’s not working, maybe we can reinvent it somehow?” she says.
“When it was my turn to grow up and be the mum in a family I was like, ‘Woah, I don’t think I like this very much. It’s not very enjoyable’.
“We’ve pared it right back … a picnic in the park, we strew the picnic blanket with flowers and that’s all we do now.”
In meantime, Mr Barker says to remember that no matter how stressful it gets, Christmas does end.
“When all is said and done, it’s just a day.”