How to enjoy Christmas amid family tensions

2017-12-24 06:04
Not everyone will enjoy Christmas like this family. There are options for those who don’t want to be around toxic relatives at the annual family gatherings

Not everyone will enjoy Christmas like this family. There are options for those who don’t want to be around toxic relatives at the annual family gatherings

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Do you grin and bear the tension when you are around family members you don’t get along with at the annual Christmas lunch?

Experts say there are alternatives to staying home alone to avoid people who add stress and emotional turmoil to your life.

That’s a reality 35-year-old Thabisa Mutaung* knows all too well. Having grown up in Johannesburg with an alcoholic father and depressed mother, her Christmas season experience has always been tainted with pain, anxiety and shame.

“My dad used to work in a factory in Johannesburg and the company would close for the holidays in the second week of December. From that week on, he would drink almost daily, shout around the house and fight with my mother,” she says.

She has no fond memories of a happy family around the dining room table overflowing with food and drink and merriment.

Other people have memories of laughing with their relatives and catching up on the past year as the children run around the house.

Psychologist Christo van der Westhuizen says there is the idea, which we get from movies, that holiday gatherings with family are supposed to be “all fun and stress free”. However, the reality is that family relationships are complicated and can be full of tension.

“But that’s not a reason to ignore the holidays completely,” Van der Westhuizen says.

Mutaung remembers her father once using his sjambok to beat up her mother’s sister during a heated verbal altercation.

He committed suicide in 2003. Her mother died in 2014 after a long illness. But Mutaung still bears the emotional scars from her broken family ties. She is the youngest of three siblings. She has a strained relationship with her eldest brother, but gets along with her second-born brother. She will spend Christmas with his family and with her 12-year-old daughter.

“When I see people post on social media about their time with family and see how happy they are, it really affects me.

“The festive season is not all it seems to be. It’s been one challenge after the next for me this year. Recently, my car was stolen and I’ve been overeating and have gained a lot of weight,” she says.

Experts say the festive season can make people feel out of control and steamrolled by family tradition. Instead of feeling like they are at the mercy of their relatives, they should know they have a say.

Dessy Tzoneva, spokesperson for the SA Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), says it is okay to say no and not attend family gatherings, particularly those with toxic and difficult relatives.

“Sometimes, this may mean that even though you may have to be at the same event (with difficult relatives), make sure you sit on the opposite side of the table. Spend your time with family members who make you feel comfortable and loved,” she explains.

Trying to resolve the conflict is one possibility.

However, Tzoneva says to ask yourself if you have tried to resolve the conflict before and what the result was, and what you want to achieve by bringing it up again.

“If you decide not to attend one family event, maybe there are other family members who you could join instead. Or you could check in with your friends to see whether you could plan your own Christmas celebration,” Tzoneva says.

If that is not the case, she says people should consider volunteering their services at a local NGO this Christmas. This way, they can contribute to creating a sense of community and connection with others who may also be feeling alone.

*Not her real name

Read more on:    christmas  |  health

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