’ Tis not really the season
Christmas isn’t necessarily a time of joy for everyone. Patrick Kelleher looks at how to survive the festive season in a difficult family
It is dubbed the most wonderful time of the year – but not for everybody. Christmas can be a time of joy and happiness for many, but what about those who come from dysfunctional, difficult or toxic families? Families with difficult members or strained relationships can be impacted by challenging behaviour, bullying, addiction and long- standing family feuds, among other issues. In some families, difficult relationships can lead to estrangement, where members of the family have no contact at all. So Christmas can be particularly difficult in these circumstances.
Deirdre Madden, a Dublin- based psychotherapist, says that Christmas can evoke feelings of “dread and anxiety” for people with difficult families, as it should be a time of togetherness and belonging.
“Home should be a place of comfort and security, and to think about returning to a toxic environment can be difficult,” Madden says. “It can bring up a lot of feelings of loneliness and sadness, because Christmas can highlight the loss of the ideal family and the relationships that aren’t perfect. It can stir up feelings of isolation because there might be a reluctance to return home, and there might be an expectation to return home as well. People might feel conflicted but quite adrift, not really knowing what to do and where they’re going to be. Making plans around Christmas Day can make people in these circumstances feel a bit lost.
“People can feel a sense of obligation to go home because they should be with their family, but they may not want to, so there may be feelings of guilt when they decide not to.”
This is the experience of James*, a young man in his early 20s. He has decided not to return to the family home for the first time this Christmas due to difficult relationships at home. He says he is “not close” to his family and that he doesn’t enjoy spending time with them. When he is at home, he tries to “fly under the radar and do small jobs to help” but avoids striking up conversations.
“I just tend to do what I’m asked and not kick up a fuss,” he says.
“Christmas Day is particularly uncomfortable as my parents have been separated for 15 years, and it is not a secret that my mother and grandparents don’t like my father. The day is spent feeling like I’m walking on eggshells or being hyper vigilant of anything said in conversation between my father and my mother’s family that would spark an argument.”
He also says that the tension in his family home is exacerbated by his family not understanding his lack of religious faith or his sexual orientation.
Stella O’Malley is a psychotherapist practicing in Dublin, and she says that the pressure and the expectation surrounding Christmas is “very bad for our happiness and wellbeing”.
She also says that Christmas is challenging for people who come from dysfunctional families because it can mean returning to the family home where they may have been mistreated.
“When you go back to the place where the upset happened, it can be very hard to move on,” O’Malley says. “A lot of us fall back into the old family dynamics, even after we’re out of the family for a long time. Once you go back into a family of origin you fall back into the dynamic, so the bullying brother starts bullying, even if he isn’t usually, even if he’s moved beyond that.
“There’s the heightened expectation and the emphasis on trying to be happy combined with revisiting family who are difficult, who, during t he year, you wouldn’t be meeting them because they’re hard work. You meet them once a year, and that’s at the time when you’re supposed to be having the best fun. It’s a laughably bad situation. It couldn’t be worse, all that expectation and also meeting all the people you don’t get on well with,” she says.
O’Malley strongly advises that people with dysfunctional or challenging families plan their Christmas in advance.
“Don’t just say, ‘ ah we’ll see how it goes, I hope it’ll be okay.’ You have to be a bit more proactive, along the lines of, ‘ my brother is going to be there and we never get on, there’s going to be war over dinner. This is what I’m going to do.’ Plan and anticipate – where will the problems be?
“They also say with difficult people that if you can manage the dose you’ll be okay, so if you are going to have Christmas with somebody who is very difficult, you have to give yourself breaks. You have to say, ‘ I’ll go out and do that walk in the morning or that swim’. Get out of the house, because when you’re there all day it’s fine at 10am, but by 6pm there’s war. Have a proactive approach for how you’re going to get out, so it’s quite definite that you’re going to remove yourself from the intensity of the house.”
Addiction is also a major issue at Christmas, and people who have alcoholics or drug addicts in their families might struggle with difficult behaviour. O’Malley says that it is important to set boundaries for yourself, and put in place a plan to get away if you need to.
“Addiction is a huge one around Christmas, and if you know it’s going to rear its head, you have to think, ‘ do I go to bed before 10 o’clock, do I make sure I get out of the room before I get very distressed? Or do I make a decision that if somebody reaches a certain level of intoxication, do I leave and do I have an excuse?’ You might say you have a raging headache and have to bring the kids home. If you have something as serious as that, where you have to remove the kids if it gets dodgy, go quickly. If it’s a lengthy goodbye it’s just horrendously dramatic on everybody because the intoxicated person makes a big deal of it.”
The day is spent feeling like I’m walking on eggshells or being hyper vigilant of anything said in conversation that would spark an argument