Are you dreading the arrival of your bossy relations? Is Grandma a little too fond of the Baileys? Family therapist Jean-Claude Chalmet has tips for keeping the peace
December 24 2016, 12:01am,
The tricky in-law
The best gift you can give yourself to minimise fury is to understand that the issue of the tricky in-law will not be resolved on Christmas Day. Across the globe these types activate in millions the same old story — that we’re not good enough. They tap directly into our internal critic. Have the wisdom not to grant them access, or fight spite with humour.
So, if your mother-in-law says, “I like turkey, but not when it’s dry,” you say: “Aha! A volunteer to cook the turkey next year. Thank you!”
My favourite response, however, is not to respond. More satisfying than snapping, “If I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it,” is to act as though nothing has been said at all. Look blankly through them as if they were one of Scrooge’s ghosts; indifference is a sophisticated punishment. Such people are usually very dissatisfied with their lives and criticise only to feel better about themselves.
Other people’s monstrous children
Don’t resign yourself to spending a portion of Christmas in their company, because then you make it a punishment. We often regard other people’s children with a brattish resentment, particularly if they spark an unfavourable memory of how we were treated or what we were like at their age. Instead, allow the child in yourself to play along. Share the Christmas with them that you would have loved as a child; it could be cathartic.
Make an effort
Bring a movie or a game that you think the children will enjoy. Ideally every adult should contribute to keeping them entertained. And when it’s your turn to supervise, know that observing is not enough. Children want engagement more than attention. When they are engaged they’re bearable, even adorable. Find something to capture their interest and do it with them. And, unless a parent asks you for advice on parenting, for heaven’s sake never offer it.
Children can behave impeccably for only 45 minutes at a time. Most of the tension comes from our unreasonable wish that they be still, quiet and courteous for hours on end. Their parents get frustrated, or irritable, because of other adults’ tension. If possible, provide children’s entertainment in a separate room, or there will be tantrums.
Don’t revert to your sulky teenage self
The family, the house, the memories of old injustices play into the collective subconscious, leading us back into the past. We often turn up in a teenage mindset, bringing nothing, expecting everything, as though a wonderful Christmas will emerge from thin air. Be responsible for contributing something, so you feel invested rather than entitled. And if you do step into that teenage role, what’s stopping you from stepping out of it (apart from siblings and parents)?
When family members are mean, it’s usually because they’re fearful or envious. When they say, “You’re so sensitive,” you say, coolly: “Yes. I am. Try considering that.” We choose what we live with, so you might want to leave the room to play with the more mature five-year-olds. Just don’t slam the door.
The favourite grandchild
There is always one child, no less demonic than the others, who in a grandparent’s eyes can do no wrong. Never mind the children, favouritism is hurtful to the parents, occasionally prompting unseasonal thoughts about choking on wishbones.
The no-frills, direct approach — “I know you’re particularly fond of little Amelia, but could you pay equal attention to the boys so they don’t feel left out” — raises hackles because Granny will feel criticised.
If Grandma accesses her Baileys stash and blurts out home truths, take note of the gist
Instead, speak from the heart. Say: “I feel that tiny Tim would like more attention from you.” That’s a reasonable request and they can’t deny what you’re feeling, so are likely to be more receptive. Be exact: “Could you spend 20 minutes tomorrow building tiny Tim’s train with him? He’d absolutely love it.”
At dinner, seat the favoured one far from the discriminatory grandparent, and the other children close.
The kitchen control freak
The kitchen control freak typically starts issuing directives before the big day, sending people links to what champagne or glazed ham they should bring. Try saying: “I have a suggestion, would you be happy to do this, or did you have something else in mind?” We like to be co-operative, collaborative and included.
No one likes to be bossed about
Still, no use hoping for a Christmas miracle. On the day itself the control freak often sets up command control in the kitchen, and guile is required to thwart them. The underlying drive is usually a need to compensate for some insecurity. If you’re the host, put up a sign: “Trespassers forbidden! Punishment: dish-washing by hand.” Be jolly about shooing away. If you’re organised, assign the meddler an alternative, time-sucking, status-giving task.
The Christmas martyr
If your mother-in-law sighs and says, “I’m exhausted! I’ve been up since 3am with this turkey,” simply say: “Thank you! That’s so wonderful of you.” There should be joy in having your whole screeching family around you. The martyr has forgotten that.
Martyrdom is a way of keeping unhappiness fixed, and a sly, underhand method of exerting control. You instil guilt in others, which manipulates them into doing what you want them to do, or feeling how you want them to feel (ie bad). Martyrdom is a choice. It spoils Christmas for everyone, so don’t play the game. Remove yourself from the pretence. Do not let the words “poor you” escape your mouth.
After dinner, you could say: “We feel we’d like you to have a rest, you’ve been slaving all morning. We’d like you to put up your feet, and we’ll take care of everything.” If they refuse help then moan, you’ve no reason to feel guilt, so don’t waste the emotion.
If you have a lazy partner
Many women at this time of year feel like the little donkey while their partner sits in an armchair, wearing a silly jumper and smoking a pipe. Men are notoriously bad at picking up on requests for help; something about the wiring. However, I do believe that many husbands, if they knew what was desired of them, would willingly step up. Say beforehand: “Listen, it’s going to be a crazy day, can I count on you for some help?” Then specify what.
Be prepared to delegate
If you want to galvanise your Christmas elf, sacrifice perfectionism. Don’t do what we do with kids: “Not like that . . . oh, forget it, I’ll do it!”
That said, there are some to whom responsibility does not come automatically. Most of us would rather avoid conflict so no one says anything and they get away with it. Underneath everyone is spitting. If he (or she) who doesn’t lift a finger is a guest, I wouldn’t let it go that far. First, detail what you expect him to bring. Then, act before alcohol has been properly accessed: “Simon! Here’s the bag of sprouts, and here’s the saucepan.”
Offensive drinking habits
Alcohol is often an excuse. We drink to pluck up the courage to say what we normally wouldn’t, but want to. So, if you don’t want to hear any booze-fuelled ranting from tanked-up relatives harbouring grudges, issue a discreet invitation to try to leave on the same good terms as when you arrived.
The truth is, if someone is drinking too much it’s often because they’re miserable and want to escape reality. If this person is typically you, you might question why you’re bothering to attend this year. If you’re intent on destroying a Christmas truce, better to stay away. Don’t spoil it for others. Consider what you would like to give to this gathering, rather than take away.
If you’re hosting a known troublemaker, distract them from drinking by forcing the family out on a walk. Or have a quiet word: “I know what you want to say to your brother, and you’d be justified, but now is not the time. Make it your new year’s resolution.” Having said that, if Grandma accesses her secret Baileys stash and blurts out some home truths, take note of the gist. Although it’s probably best to discuss it after Christmas, when everyone has sobered up, rather than squabbling over the turkey.
The scandal of the wrong present
Don’t be ungracious if someone has tried to please you. It’s not rude tactfully to direct people towards your preferences. Be authentic. If you childishly expected to have your mind read and are about to be stuck with a pink snood, that’s your fault.
We want to feel considered, but help that happen, or accept that you’re playing a power game. Equally, being a secretly disgruntled people-pleaser is not healthy or fun — and now you know.
Prevent family dramas from escalating
We already know what to expect, yet we delude ourselves that this year will be magically different. The trouble is, Christmas is an opportune time for those who love to create drama, because they have a captive audience. So, if the barney happens regardless, limit the damage.
A neutral party should set time limits and remove everyone else from the battleground: “Why don’t you two lay the table, discuss this for ten minutes, then we’re calling you in for a game of charades.”
This way, each person gets airtime, but the row is contained and we move on. Otherwise, the quarrel will rage like an open fire, embers endlessly reigniting, and spoil the mood of the day. For those involved, remember that baiting works only if you react. Don’t insist on the last word. Walk away and say you’ll be happy to discuss it in the new year.
As told to Anna Maxted
Psychotherapist Jean-Claude Chalmet offers individual, couple and family therapy; firstname.lastname@example.org