Coping with Christmas & Family Gatherings (3)

Russian dollsHoping for a quick fix to solve all your family Christmas disasters?

Well, sadly there are no quick fixes, particularly if you’re looking to change other people’s behaviors. The first and foremost rule of the counseling game is that it is very difficult to change other people, if at all. But you can change yourself. And therein lays your power.

Let’s look at a scenario that might commonly occur around the Christmas dinner table. Mark’s father is a dentist. Among his many skills, he is an expert at holding onto grudges, and his biggest beef with Mark is that, although Mark got into dentistry school and completed one year, he decided he wanted to be a salesman instead. Mark’s father has never really accepted that his son has different life goals to him. He constantly berates him, belittles him, and tells him how much money he could have earned in the last financial year if he had followed in his footsteps and become a dentist. Mark has tried to explain his feelings about dentistry and his love for sales work, but his father will have none of it. The sad thing is that Mark made this decision over 20 years ago, but the issue still rankles, and never more so than on Christmas Day when Mark returns with his family to his parents’ home. And for most of those 20 visits, by the time dessert is congealing on the plates, a violent verbal argument is in full swing which ends with Mark’s father leaving the table and Mark leaving the house. Now that Mark has children he doesn’t want them to have to go through this on Christmas Day, but each year, the same thing happens. He is seriously thinking of not returning next Christmas but feels guilty about his mother and his children missing out.

So, what can Mark do to improve the situation? Well, it’s pretty clear that Dad isn’t going to change. But Mark can. There are a number of options for Mark.

1. He can mentally decide he will not be drawn into his father’s negative comments. It can be helpful for Mark to recognize that his father has a problem of non-acceptance. Mark also needs to see that he himself has a problem in that he “bites” when his father dangles the bait. By separating out the dynamics of the situation, Mark may be able to step back a little and see what is really going on and how he himself adds fuel to the fire. If he refused to provide ammunition, which is what his father needs, the argument will die. It may be unresolved, but it will die from lack of fuel.

2. He can advise his father beforehand that he would enjoy a family Christmas get-together, but he does not wish to discuss the subject of work, either his own or his father’s. He can repeat this wish as often as necessary during the course of the day if his father attempts to berate him again.

3. He can advise his father that if he persists in disregarding his wishes, he will leave. Mark must be prepared to do this if necessary.

This same technique of teasing out the problems of each participant in a dilemma (including the role you play!) can be applied to many different scenarios, whether it is a problem drinker, a parent who belittles a son- or daughter-in-law, sibling rivalry, or rivalry between divorced parents of children.

It’s only one day, you can survive it. But you may not be able to survive years of this one particular day. If you find the problem is interfering with your life, please seek help from a qualified counselor.