Family stress at Christmas – It’s meant to be the season of goodwill when we spend quality time with our nearest and dearest, but sometimes you may be needing tips on how to survive your family at Christmas.

christmas family issues

Christmas can be a time of dread for many of us.

There’s no doubt that these family gatherings can be joyous offering lots of great shared memories and bonhomie but for many, the festive period is also a time of dread.

That’s because, sadly, reunions with our relatives can turn toxic because we rarely see them, or because we may dislike them.

This means Christmas is a hotbed that could lead to resentment and rows, so you will need to know how to tread carefully.

Lots of people feel warm and fuzzy at this time of year and may have spent months planning as well as buying gifts and enjoying warm hot chocolate drinks when the weather turns cold. An ideal time for a blissful environment.

But for others, Christmas brings anything but cheer and along with bickering and arguing it means spending quality time with people you don’t get on with.

Among those offering festive advice is the relationship charity Relate and they help more than 1.5 million families, couples and young people every year.


Top tips to surviving family stress at Christmas

Here are their top tips on it comes to surviving Christmas with your family:

Avoid them!

Advice that’s short and to the point, which highlights the best way of avoiding irritating family members which is to steer clear of those you disagree with in the first place.

Most of this is down to how you communicate with each other and when seeing your family, you may fall back into unhelpful habits which leads to confrontation. Relate says you should try:

  • Avoid being childish
  • Hurling personal insults
  • Tell people you are upset.

This last point is important if you really are dreading spending time at Christmas with your family. So rather than lashing out and becoming overly aggressive, ask the person who is u setting you, ‘Why do you talk to me like that because you upset me’.


If things become heated, and not just in the kitchen, then it’s time to leave and create a space for yourself.

This may mean going to a different room, listen to music or read a book, or you could leave the house altogether and go for a walk.

If you remove yourself in time, then you’ll avoid bickering and a situation that could then lead to a full-on family row.


One of the big issues over the festivities is that you will be spending time with people you don’t like and will probably be bored, what with being cooped up indoors and not much going on.

For those who find this intolerable situation going on for several days, then you may be bored to tears.

Instead, Relates says you need to vary things a little even if it’s just a short walk around the block, though you could go see friends or have a meal out.

Don’t reopen old wounds

As tempting as it is when things are said out of turn, it’s a good idea never to reopen old wounds.

That’s because spending time with your family may bring up difficult memories from various points in your life. These may have led to long-term resentment which can bubble over when you spend a lot of time together.

It’s particularly a bad idea, as tempting as it may be, to address some of these resentments in the middle of your Christmas dinner.

A spokeswoman for Relate tells us: “It’s better to avoid such topics altogether if you’re feeling upset or frustrated. So remember, you are not staying there forever and it might be easier, if you think you could manage it, to put up with things until your visit is over.”

Relate says should you need to confront an issue at some point and want to talk about things properly, then choose a time when everyone is feeling calm – it may even take a separate visit.

Life coach Ruth Randall and says that family stress at Christmas does bring pressure for lots of people, what with shopping and buying gifts within a budget and most people enjoy a balanced, healthy and positive relationship with family members.

Not everyone can be happy at Christmas.

She told “If you can get on with the rest of the year, or if you avoid certain relatives, then bringing everyone together at Christmas, adding alcohol can bring up old arguments, resentments and conversations they have for hoped were over a long time ago.

“If you’re stressed already with the shopping and wrapping as well as planning and everything else, you’re not in the best place to handle everything that may come up over Christmas. If you burn yourself out getting everything done, then everything else will feel so much harder, and you’ll feel criticism more strongly and will be less able to put your point across.”

She says people should know their own feelings and what may trigger them.

Ms Randall said: “Be aware of your own feelings and thoughts in family situations, you can manage your own state, even when you can’t do anything about other people’s behaviour.

“Acknowledge what you’re feeling and thinking and don’t rush into reacting which may cause something to escalate. You have a choice about how you respond to those who are pushing your buttons.”

She says we all should take a step back when it looks like an argument is escalating.

She adds: “If you notice your family or yourself slipping into old roles and the family dynamics, then you should be aware of it and take a step back.

“Don’t get drawn in as the chances are you will not be able to change other people’s opinions or beliefs. It may be easier to let it go and not cause yourself more stress.”

She also recommends that should all else fail, then you should remove yourself from the family home to give yourself a break. And remember, it will also be over for another year.

Not everyone will celebrate Christmas

It will be important to appreciate that not everyone in the UK will celebrate Christmas, but for 91% of us this really is the season to be jolly.

For those who don’t celebrate, they may not be practising Christians – but that doesn’t hold the rest of us back – or may simply have no-one to celebrate Christmas with.

One of the big issues for Christmas is the financial implications of shopping for gifts, having indulgent meals and playing board games.

Psychotherapist Rachel Buchan says one of the issues is that Christmas really does place emphasis on meaningful relationships and family unity but not everybody has to feel the same.

She explained: “If someone is grieving or feeling alone, struggling or separating, then this time of year may intensify those difficulties.”

She also says that for those who are struggling with their relationship, Christmas is also a period for self-reflection and the festivities highlight what they feel is missing from their life.

This can, she says, lead to a build-up of difficult feelings.

It’s also important to appreciate other pressures during the festivities and, for example, a study by Mind, the mental health charity, found that 36% of people say the pressure to spend more on Christmas presents than they did the year before.

Also, 26% say they feel run down during the month which can lead to family stress at Christmas.

There’s no doubt this is something that’s really hard to do what with wall-to-wall Christmas jingles and advertising and the department stores with festive window decorations encouraging people to spend to excess for the holiday season.

This may be a good time to give back, such as volunteering at a soup kitchen for a few hours or in a care home.

For those who are struggling to survive their family’s Christmas, you should reflect on the fact that with festive frivolities at their peak, it’s only for 24-hours. Everyone can keep it together for 24 hours, can’t they?

One survey by a healthcare facility, Florida House in America, highlights lots of issues but their findings chime with the British experience.

That’s because while it is the most wonderful time of the year for many people, it’s not quite so jolly for others.

Their survey found people say that stress and anxiety increases and growing numbers of people are living with mental health disorders.

And their survey highlights just how despondent people can be with 64% of those questioned saying it reminds them of how broke they are and a surprising 42% say it reminds them of how the festivities are overly commercialised.

Another 29% say this time of year is a reminder that they don’t have anyone to share the moment with, while 17% say Christmas reminds them of an event they would like to forget. For 16%, it reminds them of someone they’d like to forget, and 11% sheepishly admit that it reminds them of something they did in the past.

For most of us, the message of Christmas being a time of peace and goodwill makes the festivities an important period in our lives.

How addicts in recovery can cope with Christmas

christmas alcohol issues

Alcohol plays a big part in most peoples’ Christmas.

If you are an addict and in recovery, then Christmas can be like hell on earth as you try to spend time with your family while coping with your recovery. There’s a great page on the UK rehab website offering great tips about how you can cope over the festive period.

Among the recommendations are:

Attend some recovery meetings

Attending recovery meetings mean you will be surrounded by those who understand your emotions and thoughts at this time of year, particularly if you’re struggling with a family in conflict.

Be sober

While Christmas time is often an excuse to break out various bottles of alcohol, then this should be an opportunity to read about recovery or listening to podcasts on the subject. These will also be a source of strength for those who may be struggling when alcohol is being passed round or if you haven’t spent a lot of time with your family.

Realistic expectations

Don’t attend a Christmas family gathering with expectations about how your family should treat you now you’re in recovery. It’s likely that you’ll be disappointed. And while they will be delighted with the effort you are making, remember that they too will have their own problems to deal with.

Walk away

It’s important that you don’t rise to the bait when a family member reverts to habitual behaviours and you should ignore those family members who know how to press your buttons. This is the time of year to be an automatic pilot and practice mindfulness. Should someone trigger an emotional response, then you should walk away rather than getting angry because you’re bound to regret your words or actions afterwards. Either go for a walk or attend a recovery meeting to get your life back on track again.

However, Dee Holmes is a psychologist with Relate and she says that everyone still needs to make an effort and while it may be tempting to lie prostrate on the sofa all day long, stuffing your face with After Eights and Quality Street you may find that cabin fever will quickly set in. And that could be the path to arguments.

Not everyone will get into the Christmas spirit

She explains: “If you feel temperatures are rising then it is time to go outside and get some fresh air. This is a great opportunity to walk the dog, if you have one.”

Ms Holmes says planning activities and going for a walk is important and asks: “Boredom can create problems so take time out, read a book or go for a walk so everyone remains focussed.”

She adds: “Stay clear of any topic that will create a row since you may only be together for a day or so, you should focus on positive interactions. If there’s an issue that needs resolving, discuss it at another point.”

Basically, she says warns of not talking politics at the Christmas dinner table as this subject, with extended family present, will ‘rarely end well’.

Essentially, it’s really important that you avoid touchy subjects which will mean that in many households that no-one throws a Brexit grenade to liven things up.

Even if you find a conversation that is too dull, trying to liven things up is a disaster waiting to happen with feelings close to the surface.

Ms Holmes adds: “You don’t have to do everything together all of the time, and while some may want to play board games, not everyone will. You should respect others’ wishes if you do want a timeout.”

All families will have someone who gets under their skin without any effort – whether it is comments about the cooking or choice of TV programmes, this is a recipe for falling out.

Ms Holmes explains: “We all have old habits that we fall into when we are back in the family setting, recognise what they are.”

She says that you should get ahead of any behaviour before it becomes annoying to avoid the arguing.

Her big tip when communicating that you are upset is to use the word ‘I’ rather than ‘You’. For example, ‘I feel upset by that’ is a much better way to tackle someone than by saying ‘You always try to upset me by saying that.’


The issue of booze when surviving our family

We also need to discuss the issue of booze when surviving our family. That’s because one of the big issues over Christmas is the alcohol intake, since many people start early to get the day going.

If you and your family are tucking into Bucks Fizz as soon as you get out of bed, then you need to consider year alcohol intake for the rest the day.

While you can’t stop others from drinking to excess, you should manage your own alcohol intake so you are more sober.

Ms Holmes says: “You should go easy on alcohol, particularly if it makes you argumentative or there’s a family member present who you are likely to clash with.”

She also adds that if someone should get drunk on Christmas Day and then become belligerent and start a row – a surefire way of creating family stress at Christmas – it’s important that sober members don’t get involved as tempting as it might be to help avoid an argument that takes months (if ever!) to resolve.


Our 5 top tips for surviving family stress at Christmas

Here are the top tips for surviving family stress at Christmas.

When it appears that everything is getting out of hand, whether people have had too much to drink or what started as a cheeky discussion that has got out of control (as if you didn’t expect it to!), then you should:

1 Count to 10

One of the key ways to survive Christmas Day is to keep control of your emotions. If you find yourself disagreeing with a family member over something trivial, then you should count down slowly from 10 to 1 to compose yourself.

2 Questions

If you are with relatives you aren’t with very often, then be prepared for awkward questions that may be more intrusive than you are comfortable with. For example, some older relatives may be wondering why your life resembles that of Bridget Jones (the early years), so a good tactic is to ask other people about themselves before they ask you. Remember, most people will enjoy talking about themselves and you get a chance to catch up with what they’ve been up to. You may even learn something.

However, remember to pay attention and convey the correct facial expressions to avoid a potential disagreement. See tip number 1.

3 Food

While food is a big part of Christmas and the festivities, it may be an idea to avoid going hungry and making sarcastic comments about what is being offered up that you instantly regret.

4 Booze

For most families, booze will play a big part in the festivities but remember that while a glass of wine or a pint of beer may be enjoyable, it will also reduce blood pressure and increase your dopamine levels so any irritating comment made by a family in member will be trivial. However, this tactic only works if you avoid being drunk since throwing up after Christmas dinner is never a good look. Also, you will have to deal with a hangover and disapproving looks from grandma.

5 Be prepared

Like Boy Scouts everywhere, you should be prepared for any eventuality, usually those probing questions. If something embarrassing or usual as happened to you in the past year, it’s guaranteed to be raised by someone – and create family stress at Christmas. Or if you’ve just come out of a long-term relationship and feeling fed-up, then be prepared to answer intrusive questions. It is worth considering the answers in advance to any probing questions so you can handle the questions well. It’s also a good idea to avoid too many glasses of wine or beer to avoid the emotional fallout and tears that may end up after a question too far. See tip number four.

More information:

For anyone interested in dealing with family stress at Christmas, this is a helpful article by Relate: How to avoid family arguments this Christmas.