How to deal with difficult family members at Christmas

Photo by  Welcome Home  on  Unsplash

Recently we asked what people would like us to write about and one of the topics that came back was dealing with difficult family members. As we are in the countdown to Christmas when many of us will be holed up with our families, we thought it was time to share five tools that can help.

First let’s have a look at what we are dealing with here. Christmas can challenge even the most loving, stable family. Take a group of adults who have spent the past month attending Christmas parties, meeting Christmas deadlines, buying presents and raiding supermarkets. Add overexcited, exhausted children and you have a pretty explosive mix. Then introduce alcohol for the adults and sugar for the children and it’s starting to smoke a little. Finally lock them all in one place for a day and light the blue touch paper!

On top of this, Christmas comes just after the winter solstice, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere. Its dark, its cold and if we were bears we would be hibernating.

Instead we are expected put our party hats and play nice.

So here are five tools to help you navigate this time.

1. Is this emotion yours?

If you are sensitive and many of us are, you will pick up other people’s emotions. Imagine emotions being like perfumes. Walking into a room you would encounter many different scents. It might give you one heck of a headache but at least you would know your perfume and be able to trace any other perfume to the person wearing it.

Unfortunately, emotions are more tricky and we can end up feeling other people’s anxiety, anger or sadness. Family gatherings are a maelstrom of emotions so how can you distinguish what’s yours?

2. Step into their shoes

I had a very, very tricky grandmother. The only time she came to our house was on Christmas day and it was nerve wracking. I never knew what would happen when she and as a child that’s especially stressful.

Looking back I can see that she was a deeply unhappy woman who had experienced real hardship. She left her husband in the 1940’s which was incredibly courageous and I wish I had been more sensitive at the time. So, if there is a family member who really challenges you how about literally stepping into their shoes?

  • Place a piece of paper on the floor a few steps in front of you. This represents their shoes.

  • Then, when you are ready, step onto that piece of paper.

  • Take a few deep breaths and see what comes to mind. Is there an emotion? Is there something in their viewpoint you haven’t considered? You may be surprised.

This does not excuse any bad behaviour but understanding where they are coming from may change how you see them. This does wonders for reducing your stress level.

Then step off back into your own shoes with your new awareness.

3. Find the common ground

I have an uncle who I will never see eye to eye with when it comes to politics. As a teenager we would argue every time the family got together. To his credit, he always treated me as an adult and I must have been a complete pain in the ass as I was so convinced of my position.

Nowadays we keep our conversations to gardening and food, much safer territories. When my Dad died suddenly a few years ago he was absolutely fantastic and I couldn’t have managed without his kindness and help.

I will never change his political views and he won’t change mine so we agree to disagree and focus on what we can agree on. My difficult grandmother and I never agreed on her opinion of my Mum or my career but I loved to hear about her time in Scotland. I wish I had found out more about that side of my family while I had the chance.

Finding common ground is a key component of mediation. So if nothing else, Christmas could provide you with an opportunity to up-level your skill set!

4. Presence compass

It can be very difficult to stay present in family situations. As Ram Dass said, “If you think you are enlightened, go spend a week with your family.”

If you feel you are losing it, try this simple exercise we call the presence compass.

  • Think of the points on a compass. You are standing in the middle facing north. 

  • Take a moment to stand still and see which direction you lean in. Don’t judge or try to work out how to change it. Let your body lean in the direction that feels right.

  • Don’t worry if you don’t lean straight away, just relax and let your body guide you. If it helps, try closing your eyes.

  • When you find your “lean” take a moment to see if you are leaning North, East, West or South.

  • If you are leaning forwards or north, you may be allowing thoughts of the future to preoccupy you. Worrying about what might happen. 

  • If you are leaning backwards, or south, you may be allowing what happened in the past to spoil the present moment. Worrying about what has happened, rather than enjoying what is happening. 

  • If you are leaning west you may be distracted by what other people think. Wondering about how someone might judge what you are doing.

  • If you are leaning east you may be thinking about what someone else is doing. Comparing yourself to others and wondering if they are doing something better. The curse of social media is that we are constantly shown what others are doing and this drags our attention away.

  • Take a moment to identify which area might be stopping you enjoying the now. Don’t beat yourself up about it, this is just an awareness exercise. Also, don’t worry if you lean between the compass points. I often lean north west, distracted by what people might think and by the future.

  • When you’ve acknowledged what’s pulling your attention, bring your body back to centre, straighten up and take a couple of deep breaths. It’s all good.

5. Put your head in your hands.

You know how we put our head in our hands when it all gets too much? Well, there’s a good reason. There’s a technique called ESR (Emotional Stress Relief) where you do just that.

Essentially putting your hands on your forehead encourages blood to flow the frontal lobes of your brain. This is takes it to creative thinking part of your brain and away from your back brain which is focused on survival.

This was my number one tool for helping my children deal with nightmares and it always worked. It’s great emotional first aid tool when you need stress relief.

You can read more about it here.

Now you have these tools you may find that you don’t need them. I’ve found it’s really important to be open to people showing up differently.

And when it’s all over, how about a copy of our Winter Retreat to restore you and get you ready for 2019? It’s just around the corner.