’ 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

The Irish Times Magazine - - CHRISTMAS -

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

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