Prep your replies, take deep breaths (and don’t apologise for burnt spuds) – how to get through Christmas without falling out with your family | Christmas

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Christmas is only universally joyous for children. At some point you grow up and it gets complicated. At least that is how it seems from the letters I receive. They start to roll in around August and although the details and personalities change, the story always goes something like this: “I want to spend Christmas doing X, but my parents/in-laws/siblings want me to do Y. How can I tell them that’s not what I want to do?”

These are people perfectly used to dealing with tricky situations in their professional lives, but Christmas combined with family expectations seems to catapult them back to their childhoods.

“While consciously we all may want the best for Christmas,” says psychotherapist Mark Vahrmeyer, “there is probably no other day that has the power to propel us back to visiting the ghosts of the past. There are expectations that Christmas must be great, but given the combination of the complex family dynamics and our propensity to psychologically regress, it’s no wonder that it can feel like a powder keg situation.”

In desperation some readers book holidays far away, having a cast-iron excuse to not see family. This works. Until next year.

If you’re still here, you need to prepare. It’s much harder to calm yourself from a point of stress so, just as you would prep Christmas dinner, prep yourself.

Psychotherapist Fe Robinson’s favourite approach for coping with hostile environments is to “conjure up a beautiful bubble where the colour, texture and temperature are just wonderful for you, [and] hold it in mind if the room gets frosty”. Keep your shoulders down and practise deep breathing. I personally would also avoid alcohol until late in the day.

I also find it helps to channel a character. Depending on the situation, my favourites are Pam (Alison Steadman) from Gavin and Stacey – bright and breezy plus the odd “Oh my Christ” can lighten many a scenario; and Cathy (Lesley Manville) from the sitcom Mum, whose response to criticism is a slight pause, followed by a quiet, devastating “OK” that implies she doesn’t give a shit what you think. Never forget what a great conversational tool silence is if someone is being mean to you. Those seconds make them squirm.

Now, let’s get down to specific scenarios: here are my tips to navigating those tense yuletide moments.

‘Lovely house. Heating bill must be a fortune’

I have a lot of experience with this one. We all know that any negative comment is really a reflection not on you but on the person saying it, but in the heat of the moment it’s hard to remember this.

Snide little comments are designed to put you down. “They are coping,” says Vahrmeyer “with difficult feelings by trying to ‘project’ them on to you. This is a powerful psychological defence.”

Knowing this may lessen the sting, but it doesn’t make it go away, especially if you’ve had a lifetime of such barbs. The best thing to do is turn the subject back to them and ask them a question. For example, to the comment: “Haven’t you put on weight/look older/started to go bald?” a response could be, “Goodness, you are paying attention, aren’t you! How are things with you?”

Similarly: “Your house must be a lot of work,”

“It can be, but I love it. What’s your house like?”

Or: “You look tired.”

“I know, right! I was up all night shagging. What’s your excuse?”

‘I just don’t see the point in protesting’

This is a really difficult one: silence in response to a different view can seem complicit but it makes things easier. Because a) Christmas really isn’t the time to have these discussions; b) you’re not going to change their mind over the course of a day; and c) a relative who doesn’t get this and pushes a political/ideological agenda is really just asking for attention.

Couple in Christmas hats arguing over a cracker cartoon

Good stock phrases: “Really? That’s so interesting.”

“Good to know what you would do.” (This one is brilliant for any unwanted advice.)

“Goodness! I hadn’t heard that.”

None of these are aggressive, or acquiescent; they don’t reveal what you think and, crucially, they don’t actively invite more discussion.

‘Little Bea must be in bed by 6pm’

Being in the same family doesn’t mean you and your relatives will parent the same way. “Criticising someone else’s parenting,” says Neves, “has the potential to ruin Christmas. The only exception is if you witness a child being mistreated in front of you. But in most cases, your parenting opinion is unnecessary.”

person coming in with loads of presents for kid

Remember: parenting can release huge emotions, often nothing to do with what’s going on in front of you. If you can, take a moment to think ‘What is this really bringing up for me?’ Sibling rivalry? Feeling you weren’t treated fairly as a child? These are important, but all things to look at after Christmas.

It really doesn’t matter if, for one or two nights, your children go to bed earlier to fit in with others, or they eat nothing but candy canes. It won’t undo the regular parenting you do. If a family member buys lavish presents you couldn’t afford, they’re probably not confident that they themselves are enough. See it as that, rather than them trying to outdo you. Also, children can see past artifice and extravagance.

If someone comments on the way you parent, a good response is a laconic: “Yeah, that’s the way we do it and it works for us.”

‘Everyone, this is Joe. Joe, this is everyone’

Bringing a new friend or partner along might be much less stressful than you fear, because people tend to be on their best behaviour when there’s a new person in the mix. So it’s less likely to be an issue of how to integrate this new person than the impact on you. Because, in a weird one-upmanship way, family, often siblings, can start to put you down to gain favour with the new person. If you’re feeling feisty you could just call out this behaviour and say, “Oh look, Sally must like you, she’s showing off in front of you.”

If you’re genuinely worried about integration, warn the person what subjects to steer clear of. But if the new friend/partner is going to be part of the family, ultimately you need to leave everyone to it. On the upside, new people coming into an established dynamic can often be helpful in seeing toxic family patterns you’ve long ago grown blind to.

‘Still single? Never mind’

Woman with snowman and mistletoe

This isn’t easy if you don’t want to be single, and even harder if everyone keeps reminding you of that. Relationship psychotherapist Silva Neves thinks “if someone makes a comment, raise your head high, feel proud and propose a toast to celebrate singledom. Don’t collude with societal pressures and myths. One of them is that being in a relationship is a mark of success and being single is ‘sad’. The truth is that some people in relationships live miserable lives and there are many very happy single people.”

Comment: “Haven’t you met the right person yet?”

Response: “No, have you?” (Especially good for married people.)

“When are you going to settle down?”

“Just as soon as dinner is over, with a nice cup of tea I hope you’ll make for me.”

Finally …

Never give mean people ammunition to hurt you with. Don’t serve up a meal you’ve worked hard on with the words “Sorry I burned the spuds”. Don’t flag up your failures, real or imagined. Big yourself up. Take up room. And, if you’re about to go into a tricky extended family situation, let your chosen family – partner, and children if they’re of an appropriate age – know what you need from them.

You can even have a safe word (I’m not telling you what ours is) which if spoken can be used to semaphore that you need backup – maybe a hug, maybe five minutes in the kitchen. If you’re going into a family vipers’ nest alone, can you bring a friend? Or someone at the end of the phone, to help you debrief and remind you how fabulous you are?

And if it’s really tough, remember: these people don’t define you, and Santa sees all.

Listen to the podcast Conversations with Annalisa Barbieri at

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