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Karl Melvin: 'How to survive your family if things are more toxic than festive'

Spending Christmas together doesn’t have to be a recipe for stress, feuds and rows, writes Karl Melvin.

Karl Melvin Psychotherapist

FOR MANY CHRISTMAS is a time of parties, gifts and food. A time to be around loving family members and playing games with the children. But there is another reality.

Christmas can be a time of dread and anxiety. A time when you have to face dysfunctional parents or siblings, listen to their unhealthy opinions and expose yourself to their negative attitudes. There’s no easy way to deal with a toxic family, however, I have outlined below some tips I encourage my clients to try over the festive season.

Eliminate the obligation to visit

Although you may not feel like it around your family, you are an adult now and can do as you please.

You don’t have to explain yourself, you do not need permission to put yourself first and you can change your mind at any point.

If you decide to not go, do it for you and honour your decision by allowing yourself to enjoy Christmas.

Set a specific time-frame for the visit

If you do plan on visiting, decide in advance how long you will stay and ensure your partner is on board and supportive of this.

Fulfil the basic requirements of showing your face and then leave at the first window of opportunity.

Pick a neutral location

Being in unfamiliar territory or around different people might control their behaviours and force them to act mature temporarily.

If an opportunity arises to share Christmas with someone outside the direct family (such as aunties or uncles) then take it.

Another alternative is to celebrate Christmas in a hotel, using the fact no one has to cook as a major advantage.

Keep the conversation basic and civil

There is always an agenda with any dysfunctional relationship. The family may be opportunistic and use this period to bring up old anger and unresolved problems.

It’s important that you do NOT discuss the past or any rows or disagreements. Discuss TV, sports, current affairs, etc.

Be firm and set your own agenda. If they don’t comply, maybe it’s time to make excuses and leave.

Do not be drawn into the niceness

Killing with kindness is often used to disarm, encouraging you to drop your guard and be pulled back into the dysfunction. You may accidentally divulge private information which you would not normally share with the family and fuel their interfering ways.

Accepting that deeply dysfunctional people rarely change is essential (not because they can’t but simply because they are not open to it). If you visit hoping that things will be different, you might be easily influenced by their surprisingly respectful behaviours.

Understanding that this could just be a façade will keep you cautious and grounded around the family.

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Mentally detach

When you have to be physically present, no one says you have to actually listen to them. “Switching off” (sometime referred to as “Stone Walling”) is a great skill when around unhealthy people who try to feed your mind with worries. They may be annoyed and react with “You never listen”, but it’s worth the price.

Stop buying love

If you weren’t bothered by them, how much would you actually spend on them? Would you spend anything at all? Be honest.

Reflect on what you have spent in the past and how it much it was actually appreciated.

This will also deliver an important message to the family that you are no longer trying to buy their love/ respect or chasing peace of mind.

Rediscovering the joy of Christmas

Children understand Christmas better than any adult. They take joy in every part it: the weather, the TV programmes, time off school, playing with new toys, being around friends. That still in exists in you now, you just need to stop being so serious. Break out a video game, play Lego with the kids or throw snow at friends and try to have some fun.

Your Christmas (in fact your entire life) should not be defined by your family, but by the choices you make around who you keep in your inner circle, how you value your time and how much you allow yourself to relax and make the best of the life you were gifted.

Defying your family could be the biggest challenge you ever face, but it can also help you find a new independence and strength you never knew you had before. Christmas, like all hallmark events, is going to trigger old happy memories but you are also free to make new memories around people who genuinely appreciate you.

You just need to weather the storm of nostalgia, stick to the reality of the situation and keep moving forward knowing that things will change if you are open to it.

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.

About the author:

Karl Melvin  / Psychotherapist

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