Experts in the Media

Lisanne Iriks – Body+Soul

Mediation and Conflict expert

If your Christmas was more toxic than merry, here’s how to deal.

Because family get-togethers can be capital T-triggering.

Conflict and mediation expert Lisanne Irik knows all too well how troublesome the festive season can be… family fights are common and old wounds often poked. She shares four ways to move onwards and upwards from Christmas conflict…

While I love Christmas, it’s not a time full of happiness and joy for everyone.

Christmas can be stressful for families for all sorts of reasons. It might be the first time you celebrate it without a loved one who has recently passed away, maybe you’re separated and miss having your kids? Or your family isn’t the family you see in the movies having a fantastic time around the dinner table.

A lot of people feel triggered at Christmas, which can mean that the day and the lead up don’t go as planned.

The first thing to do is to acknowledge that it’s ok to feel however you feel. Movies paint a glorious picture that not many families can live up to, so go easy on yourself and your family. Everyone’s doing the best they can with the resources that they have available.

Secondly understand that Christmas conflict is very common, so you’re not alone.

So why is Christmas such a hard time for many and what can you do after you’ve had a blow up to smooth it over in the new year?

It’s important to note that conflict at Christmas really has nothing to do with Christmas. Relationships are already fragile and people feel resentful, angry or frustrated towards family members way before Christmas starts. Often the underlying issues have been ongoing, sometimes for years.

Christmas shines a light on these issues because as a family you have to organise yourselves and negotiate with each other. What time shall we meet? Who and what is everyone bringing? How do we all expect the day to go?

This triggers conversations in people’s minds such as, “Why are we always doing it the way she/he wants it to be? She/he always gets her way!” which in turn creates feelings of resentment and not wanting to be there, as well as not being understood or heard. Organising Christmas Day can be fraught with emotions, which means people come to Christmas already upset and on edge.

Perhaps your anxious about interacting with a specific family member and are already feeling defensive when they arrive? If you anticipate that your uncle, sister or brother is going to say something or do something to antagonise you, you brace yourself.

The interesting part is that when you anticipate something, you’re also playing a part in creating it. You feel defensive, so you communicate in a particular way with your dreaded mother-in-law which informs her response. This isn’t something we often recognise as it’s much easier to blame others.

In a family setting where you might feel resentful about how the day was organised or dread spending time with someone, that’s also the energy that will surround you. Then we throw alcohol in to the mix, and it’s not rocket science that for a lot of people these ingredients do not create a calm and connected family Christmas.

So how do you manage things post-Christmas if everyone tried to behave but got triggered, Christmas day turned into a massive argument and you haven’t spoken to your family since?

Make an appointment to talk about it

Don’t do this over text message. A phone call or video call will work and face to face is even better. Trying to resolve things in writing is not a good idea as you can’t read body language and hear tone. Remember it’s when you’re upset that people will make the worst assumptions about each other.

If there’s something to be responsible for own it

…And apologise effectively. We’re all human, we all make mistakes and if you apologise well you can actually strengthen relationships. Apologising well means you own it (without ifs and buts) and make a promise about how you will interact with that person in the future.

Make your boundaries clear, be assertive

Own things you could do better, tell your family what upset you and what you would like other people to do differently in the future. Make clear requests and think about what it is that you want from your family before you have a conversation.

Remember to ask for what you want and not what you don’t want and make sure it’s request and not a demand. A request can be answered with yes or no a demand cannot be answered with no. Demands always get a defensive response.

The key here is effective negotiation. Think about what you need, ask what others need and work out how you will communicate and interact with each other from now on without overstepping boundaries. If you feel you can’t do this alone, speak to a mediator who can help you have this conversation in a safe space.

Work on yourself

If you’re triggered by family members then there’s obviously old wounds that haven’t been healed. Work with someone to heal and you’ll probably find that you feel less triggered by the people around you, and you’ll also get clear on your boundaries and what you want in family situation such as Christmas day.

Christmas can be the most wonderful time of the year… but sometimes creating that wonder takes practice, self-awareness and kindness towards both yourself and your family.

Lisanne Iriks is a conflict and mediation expert at Life Mediation. Find out more about her here.