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Dublin: 3°C Thursday 4 March 2021

Column: How to cope with toxic family members during Christmas

Christmas can be a time of great dread when families are dysfunctional, writes Karl Melvin.

Karl Melvin Psychotherapist

IT WAS 4AM. Joan woke up as usual to check her phone. A chronic worrier, she was always on high alert, unable to relax for fear that something terrible might happen to someone in the family. This time she had reason to worry.

She had missed a call from her mother, who left a voice message crying down the phone, telling her daughter she needed to talk. In a state of panic, Joan phoned back immediately but it rang through.

She received no call back and didn’t sleep a wink after that. She rang again the next day, then the day after… There was no answer.

Fighting the hold she had

Christmas was slowly creeping up and Joan had made the decision she didn’t want to visit her family that year. After much internal conflict and rumination over what to do (the age-old battle of head versus heart), this was a huge turning point for Joan, defying her mother and fighting the hold she had over Joan’s life.

After not hearing back from her mother and subsequently not being able to sleep for several nights, Joan reinforced her decision by sending a text message to her mother to say she wouldn’t be visiting that year.

Almost like magic, her mother replied immediately, pretending that everything was okay and never mentioning the late-night call. Her delusional mother was oblivious to how this act simply validated Joan’s gut feeling that she was being manipulated.

This is just one of the dysfunctional games people play to regain control of the family dynamic and ensure everyone fulfils their designated roles. Emotional blackmail and passive aggressive attempts at worry are just two of the weapons of choice. However, consciously knowing this rarely gives comfort to those emotionally enmeshed in such families.

Dealing with a toxic family

Creating strong physical and emotional boundaries from a toxic family are easier during normal day to day life, but over the festive season this can be a challenge and creates a sense of isolation or loneliness.

Christmas can be a time of great dread when people have no choice but to at least make an appearance and show their face. Guilt can also be a factor, especially when there are children involved. No reasonable adult wants to deprive a child of a present because of personal difficulties.

Here are some of the approaches I encourage my clients to take when re-engaging with family over Christmas.

Accept others have their own reality

Many of my clients try, and fail to understand the perceptions, beliefs and behaviours of family members. Some even attempt to change their family, by reasoning, fighting, or ignoring them. This rarely works.

Despite living under the same roof and outwardly having the same influences, the complexity of human life is that our unique psychological reality is shaped by so many subtle and not so subtle events both inside and outside the family home.

The chances of you and your family “getting” each other are slim, and the energy used to try could be better spent on other things.

Avoid alcohol

Alcohol brings out the worst in many people. Drink acts as an unhinged mediator in any conversation, provoking emotional reactions quicker than some afternoon TV talk show hosts.

When inhibitions are suppressed, guards are dropped and opportunities for further unhealthy behaviours are created.

Set your agenda

You decide how long you will attend. You decide who you will, and won’t engage with and you decide what topics will be discussed. Your boundaries belong to you.

Build an exit strategy

Whether it is a prior engagement or an ‘emergency’ phone call from a friend, make sure your exit isn’t harder than it needs to be.

Create a buffer

Sometimes (not always), a third party can act as a safety buffer against unhealthy behaviours and unreasonable expectations. This could involve bringing a friend who has been debriefed on the situation or meeting family in a neutral location, such as a hotel or the home of someone else.

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Keep your head out of the game

There is more to life than family and your life should not be defined by them. Over Christmas you may have to be physically present, but your mind can be elsewhere.

Some clients have found switching off from the present and focusing on plans for that evening, the next day or even next year can help reduce the stress and impact of the visit. It may appear rude but chances are they will think badly of you no matter what you do.

Staying out of the drama

If the family is particularly emotive and confrontational, you may find yourself drawn into an argument. When this happens, it is essential to pay close attention to the difficult psychosomatic (ie body/mind) symptoms in the lead up to, during and after the exchange.

These physical signs may prompt you to react, but ‘try’ your best to anchor your body (and your emotions) and remain as stoic as possible.

Difficult emotions must be expressed but to the right people in the right way. This could involve calling a friend after the engagement or journaling, but do something to purge some of the residual impact of the visit.

Festive re-association

Christmas can also be time of deep unhappiness for those not in contact with family any more. One my clients, Joe, who was estranged from his manipulative parents for several years, hated Christmas.

He was often referred as the ‘Grinch’ by his group of friends as they could not understand how he could not enjoy himself.

The turning point for Joe was an offer to travel to Asia for Christmas. The change of environment, climate and culture altered a time he normally associated with sadness, and the experience stayed with him ever since.

I really hope this helps individuals struggling with family and I wish everyone a great Christmas and a happy 2018.

Karl Melvin is a psychotherapist based in Aspen Counselling in Lucan, Dublin. He works with adults of all ages suffering with issues such as depression, anxiety, grief and bereavement and specialises in helping people break free of dysfunctional relationships. He regularly publishes mental health articles on the website Toxic Escape.

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About the author:

Karl Melvin  / Psychotherapist

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