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How to avoid a family fallout this festive season

Christmas can be joyful and happy, but it can also be a time of tension, stress and conflict. Family lawyer and mediator Claire O'Flinn has this advice on how to survive the holiday season.

Christmas is traditionally a time for family celebrations filled with love and laughter.  Friends and family together sharing memories and making memories. But what happens if you are teetering on the edge of divorce?  What if you are in an unhealthy relationship? Perhaps you’re divorced and cannot agree the arrangements for your children? Or maybe it’s just that your mother-in-law drives you crazy? 

Whether it is a personality clash, an unpleasant relative you are obliged to invite or a relationship of conflict, top family lawyer and mediator Claire O’Flinn has this advice for making family gatherings manageable, and maybe even enjoyable, this festive season.

family around the dining table at christmas
Photo credit: Nicole Michalou / Pexels

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

I get it, you are so busy in December that the idea of any more on your plate could send you over the edge but this is really important.

Spending time agreeing Christmas contact arrangements for your children with your ex will save stress.  Get that difficult conversation out of the way and feel in control because you initiated it.  If your marriage is on the rocks, try to agree not to discuss anything until January.  Plan a country walk with people who you enjoy being with, particularly in that weird week between Christmas and New Year.  Take control! 

Accept that the only thing you can control is your reaction

You cannot control what others say or do but you can control how you react to them.  If you know that your partner always jokes that you can’t make gravy, know that in advance and let the hurtful comment drift pass (and maybe just buy gravy?!)  If your mother-in-law makes a jibe at working mothers, accept that she will make a comment and tell yourself that she is wrong (she is!)  If your ex always makes an issue of, well, anything, then rise above it, don’t bite.

We cannot stop people being controversial and hurtful but we can modify our reaction.  Try not to engage in a conversation; change the topic! 

Minimise your time with difficult relatives

People don’t change.  If someone has annoyed you for years, the very fact that it is Christmas won’t change who they are.  In fact, it might be emphasised. 

Try to minimise your time with them and distance yourself physically if you can. If a difficult conversation is started, consider a response of “let’s not talk about that now” or just turn your attention to something else. Or find an excuse to leave the room. It isn’t walking away, it is self preservation.

Keep potentially upsetting topics off-limits

Most of us avoid Brexit and individual interpretation of Covid recommendations as topics of conversation but there is always that moment during a gathering when someone brings up an uncomfortable topic.

Aim to avoid tense conversations in the first place rather than having to diffuse them.

Another glass?

Mulled wine? Glass of fizz? After-dinner liqueur?  It can be difficult to avoid the booze at Christmas. If you’re aware you become argumentative if you have been drinking, monitor yourself. Slip in soft drinks. Whilst it can be tempting to “drink through it”, if you know you get loose-tongued, just be watchful of how much you have had.  And avoid people who you know get unpleasant if they have been drinking or who you know push your buttons. 

And obviously, don’t drive if you have been drinking.

adult and child sitting and looking at a brightly lit christmas tree
Credit: S.B. Vonlanthen / Unsplash

Practice tolerance

Ok, so you have now probably eye rolled.  But we all have the capacity to unwittingly annoy others. Your mother brings the roast potatoes with her to try to help. Your sister never helps because she is scared of your territorial stacking of the dishwasher.  Your ex makes cruel comments because actually, he regrets your divorce.  Try to be tolerant, take a deep breathe and don’t take it personally.  Remember that Christmas doesn’t last forever.

Contact your friends

Never underestimate your support network!  If you need a quick top up, message a friend or phone them if you can.  Whilst they might be busy, they might just find your message the love that they need too. 

Plan to sneak away at some point to message a good friend.  You will really brighten their day and will relieve your stress by sharing too. 

Take a deep breath — or five

If you can’t physically leave a stressful situation, focus on your breathing. Take five slow, deep breaths, focusing on breathing in and out. Just feeling grounded can have a powerful effect on stress and anxiety. You can do this in the loo or even while you are stirring your M&S gravy.

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