As many enjoy the Christmas and New Year break, some of us might spend time with family; maybe our own, our in-laws or somebody else’s. But our next of kin may not always offer true kinship, our nearest may not always be dearest and our blood relatives may make our blood boil.

Whenever families get together, there is a possibility tension could build. Long term resentments, unresolved arguments, unspoken concerns or judgements held, families are not always easy to be around. And then there are those of us who might have chosen, for our mental well-being, to step away from our families or estrange ourselves by choice.


 Families come in many different forms


Our family relationships can have profound impact upon health and well-being. Being able to identify with our family can give us emotional and practical support that can help us face life’s challenges and lack of family support can have negative effects psychologically, leaving us potentially more susceptible to life’s difficulties or pressures. And if a family is facing financial pressures, like many might be considering the cost of living crisis, this can particularly affect their mental health and their relationships with each other as well.

Family relationships, whether experienced positively or negatively, affect our well-being throughout our lives. Even if we grew up with healthy attachment to caregivers, we can still experience stressful times during the holidays or otherwise.

Whether it’s marital, intergenerational or sibling relationships, connecting to others influences our well-being. Predictably it’s the quality of family relationships that helps us to have better mental health. Not only can social status, differing financial pressures, differing life choices or old resentments cause tension but the effect of family make up can also have an effect on children’s mental health.

If you are dreading the family dinner this year, here are some tips for how to come with your difficult families at Christmas:


10 ways to cope with difficult families:

If you do have a difficult relationship with your family then the support of friends can be helpful. Friends are the family we chose for ourselves, and spending quality time with friends is positively associated to life satisfaction and mental wellness.

Take time to yourself. Whether you need to go for regular walks, take time out in a garden, offer to take the dog out for a run around or breathe deeply in the bathroom, taking a break from others is helpful.

Remember you are not your family. It is helpful and healthy to separate ourselves as much as we can from the enmeshment that might be tempting when around family. Old habits, behaviours we’ve thought we’ve outgrown and emotions we thought we’d processed can all raise their heads when around family. Removing ourselves either physically or emotionally can help disentangle us from old patterns.

Remind yourself this is a limited amount of time and as soon as you can, devote time to self-care.

It might not be easy to feel autonomous at times of great tradition, such as Christmas. Autonomy is known to be positive for our well-being. We might want to make our own rules, do our own thing, but breaking with tradition may feel like it could cause outrage amongst family and the threat of being cast out. Attempting some form of asserting ourselves, with respect to those around us, will show respect to ourselves.

Express boundaries to your family. Maybe there are topics you do not want to discuss, or activities you do not want to take part in. Being clear up front about what you will and will not tolerate in a clear and non-confrontational way can help us assert ourselves and foster healthier communication styles.

Practice breathing techniques. Breathing can help calm the nervous system and regulate our stress responses. MQ has some more helpful tips on how to identify and manage stress.

Identify other family members you can talk to. Family members can be a source of stress, but some might be a source of support. While some people might express stigma of mental health conditions which can cause difficulty for those of us in recovery, don’t forget to reconsider who you can turn to in that family. If you have family members you’re able to have open supportive conversations with, make sure you take time to do so.

Avoid alcohol. If tensions are simmering just below the surface then getting drunk is not the answer. Alcohol can often flow freely at this time of year, and it might feel tempting to numb our feelings or dissociate using a beverage or several. But not only does alcohol have health consequences, it can lower inhibitions leading to us saying something we may later regret. While we can’t control whether other people drink, it can be our choice to consider how much alcohol we consume, if any.

Being alone at Christmas might still be viewed by some as “sad” but we ourselves do not have to view it as such. That is itself another kind of stigma. Choosing to spend time with ourselves, looking after our well-being, enjoying some much-needed peace and quiet either alone or with people who love us for truly who we are may well be a mentally healthier choice.


Read more information about how to cope with the holiday stress in our article here.

The post How To Cope With Difficult Families first appeared on MQ Mental Health Research.

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