How to navigate awkward family conversations this Christmas

How to navigate awkward family conversations this Christmas

For many of us, the holiday season is a time of happiness, family, great food and relaxation. But for others, Christmas brings more anxiety and stress than it does good cheer.

It’s important to practice greater compassion with each other in the lead-up to the festive season, and acknowledge that not everyone has a close family circle or supportive group of friends to celebrate with.

Kerry Athanasiadis, psychologist and practice director of Be You Psychology, explained that the pressures that come with the holidays can be enough to make anyone feel anxious.

Christmas shopping can be difficult for people who feel overwhelmed in busy stores, or who have financial limitations.

People who have experienced disordered eating or body image concerns may dread having to sit down to Christmas lunch, and those who have lost a loved one may feel a renewed sense of grief when everyone else is reuniting with their nearest and dearest.

As Christmas draws nearer, many people start to anticipate the uncomfortable interactions with extended family that we may only see a few times a year.

Athanasiadis explained that this is perfectly normal, and that we shouldn’t add stress to an already difficult time by casting shame or stigma on ourselves for not having a perfect family.

“We are bound to clash with someone in our family at some point or another, whether due to a personality clash, differences in opinions, beliefs, values or a lack of social skills,” she said.

“This can be particularly pertinent with intergenerational differences between older and younger family members.”

The difference is that normally we have some control over how much time we spend with certain family members. These boundaries can become challenged at a time when families come together to celebrate.

“Of course, there are no rules to say we have to spend the holidays with our family, but it has come to be an expected ritual in our society,” said Athanasiadis.

“Everyone has different boundaries regarding what they feel comfortable sharing about themselves or their lives with others, and unfortunately sometimes those boundaries and social rules can become blurred with family members who may incorrectly assume we are comfortable talking about certain topics with them.”

The holiday season can also trigger insecurities or social anxiety, especially if there has been a noticeable change since you last saw certain family members. This could be a career change, a relationship beginning or ending, or changes in appearance that you are worried someone may insensitively comment on.

Kerry Athanasiadis, psychologist and director of Be You Psychology & Counselling

Psychologist Kerry Athanasiadis.

Navigating awkward conversations during the holidays

To help us approach the festive season with confidence and peace of mind, Athanasiadis suggests first setting clear boundaries regarding what you will and will not tolerate, including aspects of your life that are off the table for discussion.

You can do this in the moment, by saying “I don’t feel comfortable talking about that with you today”, or you could give your family a heads-up beforehand about anything you’d rather not discuss.

Setting rules about off-limits topics, such as politics or religion, are also a great way to keep things peaceful.

“Unfortunately, sometimes excessive drinking can lead to family members becoming more disinhibited or rowdy at family gatherings,” cautioned Athanasiadis.

“Setting time limits on how long you will stay at particular events may help to avoid any uncomfortable conversations or interactions later in the day.”

There is also nothing wrong with leaving earlier than planned if you ever feel emotionally, physically or psychologically unsafe.

In most cases, our family likely have good intentions, and are simply asking questions because they are naturally curious about your life. Thinking about some topics you are happy to discuss may help steer the conversation away from private or triggering issues, while still engaging in meaningful conversation.

If an ignorant, insensitive or offensive comment is made, it is entirely up to you how you want to handle it. If you are comfortable, you may want to express your opinion or direct them to educational resources to enlighten them on why their comments are inappropriate.

“However, always remember that it’s not your responsibility to educate others on issues of importance,” said Athanasiadis.

“These sorts of conversations can be quite emotionally taxing for some, so it’s also okay to politely change the subject or join in on a different conversation instead. Also remember that others are also entitled to their own opinions, even if they don’t align with our own beliefs and values.”

Despite your best disaster prevention efforts, there is always a chance that someone will say something you don’t like.

The good news is that you don’t have to take these comments on board, and there is always a way to exit a conversation that makes you uncomfortable.

Read on for some more tips on navigating three common types of unwanted conversations with family.

How to navigate awkward family conversations this Christmas

The appearance appraisers: how to deflect comments from the ‘body police’

If there is one thing that is guaranteed to make me sweaty with discomfort, it’s unsolicited comments about my appearance. Whether it’s an overtly rude comment such as “I don’t like those pants” to someone thinking they are paying me a compliment by asking if I’ve lost weight, I have always detested the feeling that others are scrutinising my appearance.

I have always struggled with disordered eating and body dysmorphia, so my main goal is to reach a place of body neutrality. I want my body to be a vessel for my lived experience, not something to be ogled at and appraised by people who have no idea what it’s like to live in my skin.

“Unfortunately, many people have internalised fat phobia, diet culture and narrow beauty standards,” said Athanasiadis.

“These have been ingrained into Western culture over many, many years. If you feel comfortable, it’s perfectly okay to politely open up a discussion about these issues or about your desire to move away from weight and appearance-based concerns.”

This might be a statement such as “I’m trying to focus more on other areas of my life”, or “one of my goals is to challenge outdated, unrealistic beauty standards or diet culture”.

This can be a great opportunity to educate your loved ones, and even help them to improve their own relationship with their body.

However, not all people are receptive or interested in this, so it’s important to know when your energy is best preserved. Deflecting these comments by changing the subject is also perfectly acceptable.

The milestone micromanagers: coping with criticism about your progress in life

Most people are hard enough on themselves, thanks to false societal expectations about reaching certain milestones by a particular age.

This is only made worse by those family members who are always hassling us about when we are getting married, or having children, or getting a promotion or a ‘proper job’.

These comments can be degrading, rude and minimise all the achievements we have made in our lives, but it can also be difficult to tell your (probably) well-intended aunty to mind her own business.

“Unfortunately, many people make assumptions about what other people may want in their lives,” said Athanasiadis.

“Some people may feel comfortable sharing their goals or milestones with others, some may not. Regardless, everyone is on their own journey in life, and we should respect everyone’s choices. Not everyone wants the same things in life, nor is it a race or competition.

“It’s perfectly okay to say, ‘I am quite happy with how my life is tracking along’ or ‘that’s not something I want for myself, but thank you for asking’. It’s also okay to share your own goals or plans, even if they don’t fit in with traditional rules or expectations.”

Regardless of how we choose to handle these comments in the moment, remember that you don’t owe anyone an explanation for the choices you make, even if they are a beloved family member.

The controversy connoisseur: escaping the ‘devil’s advocate’ of the family

Just when you think everything is going smoothly, there is that one uncle, in-law, or cousin that loves to bring up a controversial or politically loaded issue.

Often hiding behind a guise of just ‘opening a dialogue’, too often these people go on to make unfounded, unhelpful assumptions on issues they have little-to-no knowledge or experience with.

While sometimes it’s easy to dismiss these people as out of touch, ignorant or from a different generation, sometimes it’s too triggering to ignore.

Athanasiadis confirmed that many people feel challenged when family members, particularly those from privileged backgrounds, discuss important social justice issues on which they are not well educated.

“It can be rather exhausting to always educate people on these issues, and particularly during the holiday season, which is a time when we usually want to unwind, relax and enjoy ourselves,” she said.

One option for how to respond is to entirely avoid engaging with the problematic family member, instead choosing to join in on other conversations with people we feel align better with our values.

You can also check in with yourself, and determine if you have the energy and capacity to engage with the relative to explain how their comment is unkind or unhelpful. It’s important to pick your battles, so if you feel it will be too taxing on you or that they will be defensive or dismissive, you can always just agree to disagree and move on.

“Disengaging from conflict with that person on the day doesn’t mean you like or approve of them or their comment, it just grants you the permission to enjoy your own experience,” said Athanasiadis.

Need help during the holidays?

If you are struggling during the holiday season and you need some support, please contact your GP, psychologist or psychiatrist. Alternatively, you may also wish to contact one of these free Australian helplines:

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800

Mensline Australia: 1300 789 978

Suicide Callback Service: 1300 659 467

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 46 36

Headspace: 1800 650 890

QLife: 1800 184 527

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon is a passionate writer, editor and community development professional. With over ten years’ experience in the disability, health and advocacy sectors, Emma is dedicated to creating work that highlights important social issues.