Twelve Tips for Handling Difficult Relations at Christmas

The Christmas dream suggests a magical time filled with love, treasured gifts, peace and goodwill to all. Christmas can be a wonderful time to celebrate, but sadly the reality can be anything but magical for many of us. Here are 12 tips to help you navigate difficult relationships and conflict at Christmas.

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The countdown to Christmas is here. You may find yourself frantically shopping, planning and caught up in the social frenzy that precedes the big day. The Christmas dream portrayed through stories, tear-jerking adverts and social media is a magical time filled with love, treasured gifts, peace and goodwill to all. Christmas can be a wonderful time to celebrate, but sadly the reality can be anything but magical for many of us.

The expectations around Christmas run so high but there can be a lot to contend with. We may find ourselves spending long amounts of time with distant relatives we have little in common with, family members with different values, our budgets are stretched, by the time Christmas arrives we may be worn out, so it is hardly surprising that old resentments and rifts resurface. In our everyday lives we behave like capable but once we find ourselves back in the old family dynamic our inner child comes out and it is hard to manage our feelings. Add some alcohol to the mix and anything can happen.

For any of you who are apprehensive about tension at Christmas here are some tips to help you to navigate the pitfalls and make the best of Christmas.

Welcome to the 12 tips of Christmas – Helping you to survive conflict and difficult relationships on the day!

1.     Resolve disputes in advance wherever possible - If you fear you will clash with someone over Christmas it is worth asking if they are willing to speak before the day to try to resolve things. If you can’t reach a resolution at least agree that you will put it to one side for the day.

2.     Listen - Be prepared to listen to what others have to say rather than focusing on putting your own point across. Listening means giving someone your full attention, taking in what they are saying and being open to another perspective. Repeat back what they have said so they feel heard and you are able to take it in. Avoid mind reading and assuming you know their motivations. People often surprise us when we truly listen.

3.     Stick to one issue at a time. Using phrases like ‘you always’ or ‘you never’ is a trap because it makes a problem too overwhelming to resolve.

4.     Be clear about what you want. Many of us assume that others know what we want and become resentful and blame them when our needs are overlooked. Often people are willing to respond and co-operate but need our input and guidance. Be specific e.g. ‘I would like you to help by sharing the driving over Christmas’.

5.     Take responsibility for your experience. In discussions use ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ statements. ‘I’ statements like ‘I felt hurt when you said that’ allow you to take ownership of your experience, and lets you convey your truth. ‘You’ statements like ‘you are mean and hurtful’ sound attacking and are likely to trigger a defensive response. When someone is a defensive state they are less likely to hear what you have to say and the discussion can be shut down.

6.     Avoid giving advice unless it is asked for. Advice can be well intended but ask first if it is wanted, or perhaps ask ‘how can I help you with this issue?’

7.     Avoid triggers like too much alcohol or sensitive subjects. Alcohol lowers our inhibitions and can fuel arguments in situations where there is already hostility. Certain topics can also stir up disagreements such as politics, religion or family history. If they come up use distractions to diffuse things – change the subject or suggest a different activity.

8.     Avoid sitting next to someone who triggers you during Christmas dinner if you can – Try to sit by someone preferably who you get along with, or at least is easy to tolerate.

9.     Don’t expect miracles - It is highly unlikely someone will change their nature, especially over the course of a few days. If they are generally negative and critical this will probably continue over Christmas too. Accept that you are not going to change them, keep your contact with them to as little as possible and focus on what will bring you pleasure and happiness on the day.

10.  Take care of yourself – if things get too much – if you feel irritable, anxious, upset, angry or overwhelmed - give yourself permission to take some time on your own, call a friend or do some deep breathing. Your first priority is to look after yourself and removing yourself from the situation, even temporarily, can offer some calm and a fresh perspective.

11.  Schedule activities - Plan the day so there is enough going on that the opportunities for conflict are limited. Go for a walk, play games, call relatives that may be far away, watch a movie.

12.  Be polite and respectful. Whatever happens it is important to be respectful. Name calling, violence and shouting are persecutory and abusive and are not acceptable ways to treat others.

If you are struggling with the relationships in your life I will be running a group in January 2019 for midlife women focusing on improving relationships. You can bring any issues you want to work on and I will help you to find ways to deal with them. More details can be found on

Melissa Cliffe

I am an experienced Gestalt psychotherapist and work with a range of issues including midlife, highly sensitive people, Third Culture Kids, depression, anxiety, relationships, identity, low self esteem, existential questions and more.