How to survive a dysfunctional (or complicated) family Christmas

It’s Christmas season. Decorated trees are setting up camp in living rooms across the globe, carols are pumping out declarations of ‘peace on Earth’, ‘joy to the world’ and celebrating ‘silent night, holy night’. Netflix has released a host of feel-good Christmas romance movies about time travelling Christmas knights (Yeah, I’m confused too) and women all over Pinterest are planning DIY wreaths, table settings and pinning pictures of mittened hands gripping toasted marshmallow hot chocolates in the snow. Everywhere you look, the fantasy of the perfect Christmas begs for attention.

Meanwhile, in reality- Christmas can be the WORST. It’s sweat-city because, newsflash we live in Australia where there’s always a drought or bushfire at Christmastime, everyone’s sunburnt and tired, families feel like they’re falling apart, bank accounts are empty, depression rises, and the night is certainly not silent. It’s broken by the screaming of stressed out families, frustrated tears and sometimes emergency service sirens attending to a tragedy or domestic dispute.

Merry Christmas?

There’s no doubt Christmas can be an incredibly difficult time, and I think the most common reason for this are those obligatory family gatherings on December 25th.

I recently put the call out on Facebook for recovering women’s best tips and tricks to surviving the Christmas season without roundhouse-kicking their entire family in the teeth, or ending the day frustrated, unhappy and exhausted. Here are seven great tips to help you experience just a little of that ‘peace on Earth’ we’re promised at Christmas.

  • Don’t go. It may not feel like you have a choice, but you do. Staying home on Christmas Day is always an option, despite the expectations your family may have. Make the best choice for you. Just because you’re related by blood doesn’t mean you have to put up with their crap.
  • If you choose to go, set firm boundaries around time-frames and stick to them, making sure you have control over your transportation or way out. Clearly communicate these from the start e.g ‘We will come at 2pm until 4pm’. No further explanation is needed. Doing so will eliminate the feeling of needing to stick around all day. Long days with difficult people are no good for your mental wellbeing.
  • If necessary, chose a safe word. If your partner, children or you feel unsafe and need to get out, simply communicate that word and it’s time to leave.
  • During the event, take time out where you can. Especially if you’re an introvert! Step away from socialising to do the dishes, take a short walk, do some food prep or hang out on the toilet with your phone for a while! Just tell ‘em you had Indian take-out for dinner the night before! You may also like to be intentional about chatting with people one-on-one if you have a favourite cousin, sibling or safe person. This avoids the stress tsunami of talking to and having to listen to your whole family discuss potentially triggering things.
  • Pray about it. Ask God for peace amongst chaos and opportunities for gracious and wholesome conversation. Pray for radical change in all who need help healing wounds- including yourself.
  • Games! Cards, bingo, team games, scrabble- people are usually comfortable with fun, if they’re not, they can at least watch what’s going on. This is much better than discussing politics, religion or casual racism. Games lighten the mood, build bridges and create positive memories. Except Monopoly. For the love of all that is holy, don’t bring out Monopoly at Christmas!
  • Be aware of using food, sex, porn, alcohol, drugs or overspending as escape. If you struggle with compulsive behaviours, prepare yourself for Christmas week with intentional accountability, self-care and any other preventative measures you need.

There are no perfect families, only healthier and less healthy ones. Each generation will need to work through some baggage from their upbringing, and it looks different for each individual. Whether you have trauma connected to your family, parents with wildly different world-views to you, chronic health conditions that go misunderstood or any other stress that runs high at Christmas- your pain is valid and you as an adult have the power to make the best choice for you.

Leave a Comment