Dreading All Those Awkward Questions From Family at Christmas? This Expert Is Here to Help

Dreading All Those Awkward Questions From Family at Christmas? This Expert Is Here to Help
The Family Stone. Credit: 20th Century Studios

The holidays are often a period of increased family time, and while this can be a wonderful thing, it can also be trying for some.

Unfortunately, with varying degrees, time with the family can be stressful for a number of people. Whether it’s the fact that you just can’t handle hearing your uncle Simon talk about his stamp collection anymore, or it’s something more toxic, it’s absolutely worth chatting about mental health in family settings.

For that reason, I sought out the advice of Patrick Dixon, a psychologist with the Indigo Project in Sydney.

Here’s the advice he had to share:

If tensions tend to run high in your family, try to focus on prevention

Dixon explained that there are a number of healthy ways to approach family conflict but that “prevention is a great start”.

He recommended working towards separating emotions and actions as best you can.

“A great Acceptance and Commitment Therapy technique is STOP,” he shared over email.

“The STOP acronym can help with creating this self-awareness and facilitate the space for your observing self to make morally congruent decisions. Stop, Take a breath, Observe your values, and Proceed mindfully.”

Pay attention to self-talk:

This plays out in a couple of different ways. If you’re spiralling into a negative headspace, Dixon suggested reminding yourself of the bigger picture.

“Positive self-talk like ‘This is temporary,’ ‘There are other people I am here to see,’ ‘Family is important to me,’ [and] ‘I can get through this’ can be good places to start,” he said.

Additionally, if you’ve just encountered a nasty run-in, the way you speak to yourself afterwards is also incredibly important.

Dixon shared:

“Talking to yourself in a compassionate way “I’m sorry you went through that, what do you need now?” can help the post-argument distress.”

What should you do if a family member brings up something uncomfortable?

Unfortunately, this will happen to some people. There will be a family member somewhere who says something about your relationship status, or kids, or brings up politics in a way that does not sit well with others.

In cases like these, Dixon shared that it’s useful to refer to “Non-Violent Communication; a communication technique by Dr Marshall B. Rosenburg”.

He said that it’s useful here to “State what you observe, how it makes you feel, what you need or value, and make a clear request”.

That would sound something like this:

“When I hear you say _, I feel _, because I value/need _. Would you be willing to _?”

(Note that the last blank should not be STFU.)

If that fails, Dixon suggested just repeating your view over and over until the relo causing you strife drops the topic. Otherwise, he said you can bring out the old faithful, “Clearly we don’t agree, I’d prefer to change the topic if you don’t mind”.

What if an inappropriate comment is made?

I hope this doesn’t happen, but if you run into a racist comment or sexist statements or anything remotely offensive during family interactions, Dixon said you should try the “GIVE and FAST techniques created by Marsha Linehan as part of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy”.

If you’d like to maintain your relationship, but still want to address the comment made, the steps to make are:

“G: Gentle: Be gentle in your reply
I: Interest: Show interest in what the other person is saying
V: Validate: Validate their emotions
E: Easy manner: Speak with an easy manner”

“Alternatively, for more of a focus on self-respect, perhaps with an inappropriate comment that has continued to resurface year after year, the FAST technique may be more applicable. FAST stands for:”

“F: Fair: Remain fair to the topic
A: no Apologies: Don’t apologise for your opinion
S: Stick to your values: Stay true to who you are and what you stand for
T: remain Truthful: Stick to the facts”

Hopefully, taking these steps will help you navigate any uncomfortable family run-ins over the holidays and going forward.

And remember, if you ever need support there are services you can reach out. As Dixon shared “There is always somebody to chat too. Give one of these numbers a call if things become difficult over the holiday period.”

eHeadspace – 1800 650 890
Beyondblue – 1300 22 4636
Lifeline – 13 11 14
Mens line – 1300 789 978
Mindspot – 1800 61 44 34
Butterfly Foundation – 1800 151 152
Q Life – 1800 184 527
1800RESPECT – 1800 737 732 (24 hours)
We’ve also written a piece on how to support loved ones experiencing domestic violence here.  
Black Dog Institute
Open Arms Veterans and Family Counselling: 1800 011 046

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