Advice from Dr Keith Gaynor

Top tips for surviving Christmas with the family

Lifestyle Reporter


Lifestyle Reporter

Top tips for surviving Christmas with the family

Tips to surviving Christmas with the family.

To many it is the “most wonderful time of the year,” yet Christmas can also be a catalyst for stress and angst. We love our families and we love Christmas, which makes it tough that it is a time of year when we are most likely to see fights, rows and tension. Christmas can be a stressful time. From the moment the clock goes back there are many people dreading Christmas and a lot of others who are hurt and upset at the end of it.

Families are complex and have complex relationships. The eldest vs the youngest; the perfect child vs the troublemaker; mother-in-law vs daughter-in-law; separated families and families that don’t talk to each other. These are all normal dynamics of family relationships which are there all year around. However, Christmas can become a pressure cooker. High expectations, physical exhaustion and a limited number of days all stack up the pressure. Here Dr Keith Gaynor, Senior Clinical Psychologist at Saint John of God Hospital, Stillorgan advises on managing stress this Christmas.

You aren't the only ones

Firstly it is important to realise you’re family isn’t the only one. Everyone else isn’t going around perfectly happy without an ounce of stress. Everyone on the street has similar family issues and they all play out at Christmas. 

Don’t take the bait

It is always the same people and the same few sore spots. This is not the Christmas where issues will be settled right away. There are a lot of issues that need to be talked about and worked on. January and the other 10 months of the year are the time to do it. Not the week of Christmas.

Don't let the loaded question get you down

In the same vein, Don’t let the loaded question get you down. Families are notoriously good at making comments and asking loaded questions. The answer to any of those is “God wasn’t that a lovely turkey!”

Watch the alcohol

Christmas is the time to be merry and we all need to let loose sometimes. But it is exactly when a few drinks are taken, that things get said and the dynamics kick off. Sometimes those things can be difficult to take back. What’s worse, they may be true. But we wouldn’t have said it in that way, in that place, with those people. If we are going to address family issues then context matters, and alcohol impacts on all of that. It can be easy to drink too much during these gatherings. If the tensions are high, then less is more.

Don’t go with your impulses

This may seem strange but have a think about what you want your Christmas to be: calm, restful, enjoyable. What are your impulses telling you to do? If they are bringing in the direction you want to go great. If they are taking you away from where you want to go, maybe it is best to take a deep breath and make another choice.


Don’t look for the perfect Christmas

Embrace the imperfection. You don’t need the perfect presents, the kids are going to play with the box. You don’t need the perfect dinner, everyone is going to love it anyway and fall asleep after, you don’t need the perfect tree, decorations, mulled wine, Christmas jumper. All anyone wants is you. Fairly calm, fairly normal and able to sit and chat and laugh. Embrace the madness and dump the perfection.


How do I act?

We often feel we have the right to “tell it like it is”, or that we are doing someone a favour by letting rip at them. In fact, there is almost no group of people, we talk to like our family. We wouldn’t talk to colleagues, strangers, flatmates in the same way. There is a reason for politeness. It is respectful and recognises that other people might have a different perspective to us. That’s true of our family too.


Don’t regress into childhood behaviours

We all regress at Christmas. Things we did 30 years ago crop up again. But if there is family tension, it is worth asking; am I the one being the child? Am I being demanding, self-righteous, not taking other people’s perspectives, being in a strop because Christmas isn’t going my way? We are probably not the only one, but we might be part of the problem.

Break out of Cabin Fever

Often fights take place because we are spending too much time with each other. 48 hours straight is probably too much! Get out, go for a walk, go for a dip in the sea, visit a friend and mix it up. Then come back to watch Indiana Jones. You’ll be refreshed and everyone else will have had a break from you too.

Keep the big picture in mind. More than likely these are people that you really love. You may want to strangle one or two of them but you would probably do anything for them. We don’t actually have that many Christmas together. That doesn’t mean we should try to make them perfect. That means we should really try to be grateful for the messy, sloppy, imperfect very human families we have, especially when they are wrapped up in tinsel.