Kim Barlow-Miles Counselling

Family Christmas: Tension, Conflict..Violence?

At the beginning of the pre-Christmas week, I thought it might be helpful to reflect on the difficulties some families experience at Christmas time, and suggest some coping strategies. The Morning Show, on BBC Radio Nottingham, with Frances Finn, was the forum for this.

In Western cultures, Christmas is often promoted as a special time for families, when everyone must enjoy time together and have fun. This peaks on Christmas Day itself, which can become a steaming pressure- cooker of expectations: the perfect turkey, complete with all the trimmings served at the right time, in a festive environment, with each individual’s preferences accounted for….. This is often against an alcohol fuelled, noisy background, with over-tired children (and exhausted adults) trying to get their own needs met!  Small wonder that this is also a peak time for episodes of domestic violence, when tensions can boil over into verbal conflict and finally erupt into physical expressions of anger and distress.

The Christmas expectations are only a part of the problem; sometimes the family members assembled together may be present from a sense of duty - perhaps with little in common with each other other than this relationship. Or perhaps there is unfinished business - emotional conflict which is unresolved from the past, with the initially suppressed sense of unfairness and frustration re-ignited by the disinhibiting effect of alcohol…..and alcohol can also upset careful attempts to ’say the right thing’ and walk on eggshells around known sensitivities of particular individuals….or cause people to misinterpret well-meant remarks and make apologies clumsy at best and futile at worst. 

Another factor in all this is the concept of Self-fulfilling Prophecy. This describes the tendency to anticipate an outcome with such intensity that we actually influence it by our behaviour - even without conscious awareness of doing so. If, for example, we really dread this Christmas being a repeat of a bad experience last year, we may start to ‘awfulise’ and ‘catastrophise’ - and these negative thoughts are expressed non-verbally in our body language and picked up by the people around us, creating a ‘bad (uncomfortable)  atmosphere’ …..which degenerates into awkward silences and abrupt remarks ….and then possibly hurtful comments….and replies…and finally full-on rows, plate throwing and physical assaults.

Violence is usually the final resort of the person whose anger exceeds their capacity to fully verbalise it, and is sometimes a pattern copied from the behaviour of a parent. Typically the person who becomes violent feels threatened by something or someone (past or present), and the circumstances of Christmas, especially the element of alcohol (ironically ‘Chrismas cheer’), enflame this and it is deflected onto an available victim - someone less powerful; or it may be that this victim is a reminder in some way of the original threat, or holds a different kind of power over the abuser - perhaps the power to abandon him or her. 

COPING STRATEGIES

1. Awareness: recogising the potency of Self-fulfilling Prophecy and the effect of carrying a sense of ‘it’s going to be awful, a DISASTER!’ Aim to keep an open mind and treat the situation as a fresh start.

2. Set BOUNDARIES:

- Limit the time you spend with family members, in an enclosed space. Try to mix things up, spend some time outdoors if possible, make full use of space.

- Prepare ’safe subjects’ for general discussion; avoid the 3 Taboos of Sex, Religion and Politics

- Focus on ‘now’ and not ‘the past’ . Leave Unfinished Business outside and don’t try to get to the bottom of issues/make amends/ repair broken bridges  -about things that have gone wrong in the past.

3. Avoid or limit alcohol; as a rough guide, the more strongly you think ‘I need a drink’ the less advisable it is to have one…..

4.Ground and soothe yourself: take Time Out. You absolutely can absent yourself for a few minutes to do some soothing rhythmic breathing. (Inhale fully for 3 seconds, inflating your abdomen with air (fresh air if possible) - the hold for 3 seconds - and breathe out with a long exhale, 3 seconds).  Repeat to yourself a calming phrase such as ‘It’s ok, it’s just one day, all over soon…’

5. And finally, remember, Christmas Day is just one day of 24 hours (and some of those you will be asleep) made up of 60 minutes in each hour. You can get through this ….and you may even enjoy it.!!    

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