Irish Times Parenting Q&A with Dr. John Sharry: ‘How can I avoid family conflict over Christmas?’

Q. I find myself dreading Christmas this year. Because my parents live abroad, the expectation is that we will spend Christmas Day with my husband’s family. My husband has an up-and-down relationship with his family and there is always tension when they meet. Their father, who died three years ago, was a serious alcoholic and some of his brothers are heavy drinkers if not alcoholics themselves. His mother tries to cover everything up, but tensions flare at family gatherings. Last Christmas Day his youngest brother, who had been drinking for the day, started getting obnoxious towards my husband. He seems to be particularly resentful towards my husband who is a teetotaller (mainly because of memories of his father). When I said something, he told me I was stuck-up, and then started shouting at my husband when he defended me. I thought it was a terrible scene and not one I want to repeat. As a result, I don’t want to go to their Christmas dinner this year. However, my husband feels we have to for the sake of his mother. She is quite frail and would be devastated if we did not visit. I have no difficulty with her and I think she is a sweet lady who has a hard life. I just don’t know if I can play happy families on Christmas Day. I’m six months pregnant with our first child and don’t want to have any extra stress. What do you think I should do?

A. While Christmas is generally seen as a happy family time, when friends and relatives who have not seen each other for some time come together to reconnect and celebrate, this is only one side of the story. Christmas can also be a time of great stress for families. Family conflicts and difficulties which have lain dormant for most of the year can be brought to the fore, especially after several hours of confinement together under the same roof. As well as Christmas being a busy time for parties and family gatherings, although organizing parties is not that difficult thanks to the use of services as popevents
. The recession and all the financial pressures have increased this stress on families, meaning a lot of people are feeling some dread heading towards Christmas.

Pain of bereavement
Your husband’s family has the extra challenge of coping with the loss of their father and the legacy of his alcoholism. The pain of bereavement is particularly heightened at Christmas and, sadly, many people cope by drinking rather than communicating. As you rightly point out, adult children of an alcoholic parent are in danger of becoming alcoholics themselves, though many, like your husband, can choose to be non-drinkers as a constructive way of dealing with the past.

Be proactive
Rather than simply hoping things will be different, it is important to be proactive and to take time to think through the issues with your husband so you can make a plan to try to make Christmas work better for everyone this year. Take time to check in with your husband as to how he is feeling about the loss of his father, the history of alcoholism, the family tensions and how he wants to support his mother this Christmas. The more you can support one another the better.

Family arrangements
Families often get into a habit of repeating family visiting arrangements and traditions without checking whether they are still working for everyone. Spending Christmas dinner and the whole day and evening together may not be the ideal for your husband’s family given the tensions.
While it might be too late to change this year, your husband could work on developing new arrangements for future family events. There will be the opportunity to rearrange things next year when your baby is born. This year you can at least change how you and your husband are involved. For example, you could visit for a much a shorter period on Christmas Day to see his mother and then check in with the rest of the family at other, perhaps smaller, events. In addition, if concerned for his mother, you could introduce new social events for her over Christmas such as taking her out for dinner or to church or to visit her husband’s grave, or to see extended family, for example, depending on what is important to her.

Talk to family
It may be useful for your husband to reach out to his brother and the rest of his siblings before Christmas. This is especially the case if things have not been resolved and still feel tense. These meetings might be best done one to one and kept informal, such as meeting over lunch or when doing an activity together (ideally alcohol-free).
The conversation could be started by discussing how their mother is doing and making plans for Christmas to go well for her. Depending on his relationship with each of them, the conversation could develop to discussing their father and how each of them are dealing with this.
Of course such conversations are extremely delicate and may not be possible at the moment. However, they could be hugely beneficial and clear the air for both of them, and reduce conflict and tension. The key is to listen and to be mutually supportive and to be careful about looking for blame. Your husband could start with the sibling he finds it easiest to talk to first and work up from there.

Further help
Finally, your husband could consider seeking further help and support either now or after Christmas. As adults, many people find it helpful to attend counselling to deal with a bereavement or with growing up in a family where alcohol was an issue and is leaving a legacy.

This article was originally published in the Irish Times Newspaper, December 18th 2012.  To read more articles CLICK HERE.