Sister stressing you out? Want to throw the trifle at your mom-in-law? Christmas is the season of good cheer – and loads of family time…
The festive season can often be fraught with family landmines that can turn into a squabble. Sadly, there’s not very much we can do about it other than grin and bear it… or is there? We asked counselling psychologist Dr Deborah Bernhardt how to navigate these time bombs.
Are you single and not keen to mingle?
Ah, Christmas – a time for stolen kisses under the mistletoe, romantic gifts, and celebrating another year of being loved up. But if you’re single it can mean having to endure being seated at the kiddie table, seeing another photo of a newly-engaged cousin, and fielding endless questions about your love life from nosy relatives.
Solution: ‘When it comes to those annoying relationship questions, decide on your response ahead of time. Keep it light and frothy with a touch of humour,’ says Deborah. You could try Clueless-inspired humour, like ‘You see how picky I am about my shoes, and they only go on my feet!’
Tired of hosting the festivities every year?
Every year it’s just assumed that you and your partner will host the whole family for Christmas. You have a good time but you can’t help feeling resentful that you always have to cater, entertain, and foot the bill. When you suggest going to your sisters-in-law, you’re told they couldn’t possibly host it as they are far too busy, yet you have three young children and a full-time job.
Solution: We’re all cutting back where we can, so any reasonable person would agree it’s unfair to leave all the expenses to one family. ‘Chat to everyone involved about sharing the responsibility and the costs,’ says Deborah. ‘If someone else helps out by bringing the pudding and setting the table, it’ll take the pressure off.’
Read more: Christmas trifle recipes everyone will love
Feel like you have a real monster-in-law?
Not only are you not good enough for her son, you’ve also overcooked the gammon, the potatoes aren’t ‘how I would have done them’, and the designer scarf you splashed out on for her ‘is lovely but not really my colour’. It doesn’t matter what you do, she’ll make sure you know she’s less than impressed. What’s more, your husband does nothing to defend you.
Solution: Accept that your partner is stuck between two very important women in his life and probably doesn’t want to take sides. ‘Stop trying to meet her expectations; if her attitude towards you hasn’t changed the whole time that you’ve been married, it’s not going to change any time soon, so you’re only setting yourself up for failure. Make a conscious decision ahead of time not to let your mother-in-law’s snide remarks upset you,’ advises Deborah.
Not looking forward to having your snarky sister come over?
She’s the mean girl who’s skilled at pushing your buttons. From comments about what you’re wearing to sneaky digs about your children’s behaviour, she’s a master at winding you up.
Solution: Deborah recommends saying a few positive affirmations to yourself in the mirror before she arrives. ‘Block her negative comments by telling yourself that you feel great and you love your kids just the way they are. Try to stay calm and collected, and if she complains about your cooking or your hosting skills, sweetly suggest she hosts the next family gathering. That’ll teach her.’
Bickering over the Christmas budget?
You’ve set the budget for Christmas, and have even made your own gifts, yet when you check your bank balance you see that your partner’s been using the credit card to splurge on gifts for the kids. His argument? It’s once a year and what can beat seeing the expression on your kid’s face when they tear open the wrapping on another toy-car set. You feel R1 000 is way too much to spend on a five-year-old, especially when money is already tight…
Solution: ‘Set aside some time to go over your expenses for December and January. Draw up a budget that includes every expense, from debit orders and car payments to holiday costs – don’t forget the school uniforms and stationery. Once that’s all out of the way, look at what you have left over and decide what you’ll spend on each family member,’ says Deborah. This will go a long way to help build financial trust between the two of you. Besides, with the numbers in front of you, it’ll be hard for your partner to argue!
Feel like you’re trying to make magic all on your own?
For you, Christmas is about going full-out – decorating the house, food with all the trimmings, carol singing, and celebrating with the whole family. Your partner, on the other hand, hates all the fuss and would rather spend his leave on an island far away from any visiting aunts or long-lost cousins.
Solution: ‘Embrace your love for Christmas with friends and family who share your enthusiasm, rather than forcing a grumpy partner to attend every dinner party or lunch,’ says Deborah. ‘This doesn’t mean they get a free pass for every event over the festive season, though. You need to come to a compromise by deciding together what functions you’ll attend as a couple and those you’ll do alone. Then discuss with your partner what things they’d like to do over the holidays.’
Have a long list of chores but no committed helpers?
You’re up at 5am to put the turkey in the oven, there are still last-minute gifts to be wrapped, and the house needs to be cleaned before your guests arrive. You’re feeling stressed so you ask your partner to help out with the chores, but two hours later, there’s a half-hung basket of laundry, unpeeled potatoes still in the sink, and laughter coming from the pool as he jumps in with the kids.
Solution: Yes, you’re on holiday so you might not feel like putting together a tight schedule, but that’s the only way you won’t land up doing everything yourself. Sit down as a family (the kids should be helping out too) and discuss what needs to be done, when and by whom. ‘Ask everyone to help you with the chores, such as chopping veggies, before spending the rest of the afternoon splashing in the pool together as a family,’ advises Deborah. After all, it is holiday time!
Have a nasty niece & don’t know what to do?
‘Spoilt’ doesn’t begin to describe this little horror. From foot-stomping to temper tantrums, she’s an expert at getting her own way. Her parents try to subdue her demands with gifts and platitudes, but it’s never enough. She won’t eat the same meal as everyone else and don’t even think about asking her to clear up after herself.
Solution: There’s no way around it: you need to have firm rules and boundaries that apply to everyone. ‘Be reasonable and don’t be manipulated by idle threats, and tantrums, or indulge special requests,’ says Deborah. Instead focus your attention on any positive behaviour the child exhibits. ‘Give lots of praise to encourage the child to behave appropriately.’
And what to do if it’s a not-so-merry Christmas…
You may have recently lost a loved one, or perhaps your kids are spending the holidays with your ex. Despite the Christmas cheer, you’re overwhelmed by sadness and aren’t sure how you’re going to get through all of the social activities and the obligation to be joyful at this time of year.
Solution: Try switching your focus to someone who’s less fortunate than you. ‘Giving to others and trying to bring them joy during hard times is one way of easing your own pain,’ says Deborah. Get in touch with your local children’s home and find out what they need – you could buy them much-needed items or spend a couple of hours with the kids. Whatever it is, you’re bound to walk away with a smile on your face.
Losing a family member and trying to put on a brave face during the festive season can be too much to bear. ‘When remembering a loved one, decide on an annual tradition that lets you celebrate their life in a symbolic way,’ advises Deborah. It could be a simple gesture like lighting a candle at the table to remind you of the good times.
Deborah also says you shouldn’t feel guilty about spoiling yourself, ‘Find something that gives you joy and set aside some me-time for it. Do something that you don’t always have time for because work gets in the way or you need to look after the kids – this is your holiday too.’