There's nothing that challenges personal boundaries more than Christmas Day.
Here's how to gracefully manage your dysfunctional extended family so you can get through the day without being traumatized for the next twelve months.
1.The emotionally manipulative /controlling parent.
This parent has already made you feel bad for not coming to visit them more often. Of course they're upset that you're late. They might even begin with "If you really loved me, you would visit me more often" or "If you really loved me you wouldn't be so late." What sort of effect does this type of talk have on a person in the medium to long term? Does the parent have a right to say this?
Ah, the ninja shame attack, my favourite. Designed to disarm you, punish you for perceived wrongdoing, tangle your guts and tie your tongue with words that flounder and die in the back of your throat.
Shame was the discipline tactic of choice for previous generations, particularly in Victorian times when children were expected to "be seen and not heard". We tend to parent the way we were parented unless we pause to question it and so shame continues to be used today, often without awareness of its damaging effects to self esteem and the cancerous way it erodes goodwill in a relationship.
These comments are likely to come from a parent who is over sensitive because they were shamed as children (you are wrong as opposed to what you did was wrong) and so they take everything personally. Because of this, their comments are designed to hurt you in the same way they perceive they have been hurt by you.
The best way to combat shame is firstly to recognize where it's coming from; that it's not actually about you, it's more about your parent and the way they were parented and use that knowledge not to buy into it: "Hello Mum, it's great to see you. I'm late because of the traffic. How are you?" Then be prepared to ignore the next few Hi-Ya karate chop shame attack attempts and re-state your original question.
But then, they might follow up with 'When are you going to settle down?' 'Why don't you have a boyfriend/husband/kids yet?' Or 'Why don't you have a better job?' Where are these questions coming from? And how should you respond?
Giving them the benefit of the doubt, they might be trying to impose their idea of a good life on you. Settling down, having a husband/kids/good job is the default recipe for happiness and maybe this, in a roundabout way, is their idea of shuffling you towards it.
Or...maybe not. If this is rapid fire negative questioning is typical of your parent, I would actually be wondering if there might be some depression in there. Depression isn't always expressed as sadness; anxiousness and irritability can be other signs. I would just flag it today as something to think more about and then have a heart to heart talk with them about it when you feel up to it: let them know you've noticed that they're not particularly happy and ask what's going on for them, encourage them to talk with you or to a counselor who can help them explore what this is about and find a path through it.
2.The bigoted relative.
'Same sex marriage is a sham'. 'Feminism will be the death of this country.' 'We have too many boat people'. Why is this person saying this? What do they hope to achieve?
Bigotry in all its forms is caused by lack of awareness, life experience and empathy, often underpinned by a fear of differences. Sometimes it's formed as a result of a negative childhood experience that never healed, in which case it's best left alone, as retaliation can feel like stick-poking from their perspective.
A new study from Brock University in Ontario, Canada finds that more often prejudice is linked with low IQ: less intelligent people are more likely to dismiss things they don't understand or have experience of out of hand, are more likely to think in black and white terms and are more resistant to change.
We tend to think that other people think like us. A bigoted comment tossed out across the floor might not be done deliberately to offend or if it is, there's a purpose to it: if their attitude is fuelled by fear, it's the person's sense of conviction that gives them the illusion of strength (as does seeking solidarity), a way of unconsciously self-regulating their vulnerable emotions underneath.
Regardless of the impetus, don't buy into it. If you strip away the illusion of strength, it causes anxiety and then more voluble bigotry to try and cope with that. Do the right thing by speaking up but state your case coolly "I don't agree with you and I don't think it's appropriate to talk about it today" so you don't 'hook' them and get the rest of the family into a brawl, be proud of yourself for taking the more worldly, compassionate, self-controlled and educated higher ground and move on. Quickly.
3.The drunk Grandma who insults you.
'You know, I have always hated you'. Why does Grandma say this? Should you just forgive her because she is old and drunk?
Alcohol is a great disinhibitor and one of the things it can unleash is projection. Projection is a defense mechanism where people transfer qualities they subconsciously don't like about themselves on to other people.
This is done so they can express the disgust they feel inside but at the same time protect themselves from the anxiety and shame of knowing it's they themselves that they are disgusted with.
If Grandma was younger and sober and you were able to hold on to yourself through this conversation, it would be interesting to know what it is she says she hates. If she answered with something like "It's because you're selfish" then what she's saying "it's because deep down I worry I am selfish but I don't want to look at that too closely".
If you've had too much to drink yourself you might be tempted to say that, but in this situation it may not be such a good idea. It's her stuff so don't buy into it. Offer to get her some food and a glass of water and make sure she has a lift home. Preferably early.
4.The uncle who smiles wolfishly and wants you to sit on his lap.
It's always uncomfortable when our sexual boundaries are challenged, but even more so when it's by a member of our family. Say "hi Uncle, how are you?" and let him know that you know it's inappropriate so it won't happen again next year with "I think I'm a little old to sit on your lap".
From three paces away. Don't sit next to him at the table. Watch your back. And be prepared to dodge the extended full body hug he's going to initiate at the end.
5.The toddler left to their own devices who may be screaming and/or ruining your house.
Toddlers are so exhausting it's always a relief for parents when there are other adults to share the load so they can have a bit of a break themselves (and I have been guilty of this myself), but if inattention means broken plates, a new Pro Hart on your carpet and frayed nerves, it's just going to add to everyone's stress levels, today and for Christmases to come.
Best to take into account the needs of all the guests, big and little, and prepare for them. Schedule the meal for when it doesn't coincide with a toddler's daytime nap (or get parents to bring a portable cot), agree beforehand that if the little critter gets overtired it's OK for the parents to bail. Avoid serving sugar laden drinks or treats, it will make them hyperactive and then there's no hope of calming them down.
Plan a fun toddler tiring activity (get one of the other cousins or uncles to kick a ball around with them) before the meal and arm yourself with a Dora DVD or box of Duplo (give as a gift on the day or suggest the parents bring one) to distract and keep them occupied afterwards so everyone can relax and enjoy themselves, even the little people.
6.The shy cousin who can not seem to hold a conversation.
Shyness can stem from a fear of approaching people, interacting with them or being judged so make them feel welcome and relaxed. Start a conversation talking about yourself to give them some time to settle down and then lead with open ended questions "so what have you been up to?" Stick to safe topics: entertainment, current affairs, holiday plans.
Then take the time to introduce them gradually and individually to the other people in the room with a conversation opener "you probably didn't know that Aunty Sharon just bought a cat..." and using the information you've gleaned from your own initial conversation to make other connections. If you see them at loose end, give them a job to do to focus their attention and make them feel useful.
Offer to get them a drink and have the karaoke machine ready in case they are one of those shy types who bust open after a glass of punch. When they leave, let them know how much you enjoyed catching up and are looking forward to the next one so hopefully they are more relaxed next time around and you don't have to work so hard!
7.The relative going through a rough time, ie a divorce, a break-up, etc. What do you say - especially at Christmas?
Christmas can be a difficult time for many; representing an annual milestone of a life gone wrong. Divorces, deaths and breakups or a loss of any kind will be felt more keenly on anniversaries, and Christmas is particularly hard as it is a bigger gathering than most. There is nothing worse than feeling lonely in a roomful of people who are supposed to be your nearest and dearest, with heavy heart that nobody wants to share.
Acknowledge the person's loss. Ask how they are to gauge where they are at. Some will want to put on a brave face and just get through it as quickly as possible, others will want a break from their mourning and genuinely want a nice day to relieve their distress a little, others will want to unburden themselves at the slightest hint of sympathy.
In any case, simply let them know that you care and suggest having a good talk when you can both arrange it. Then give them a big hug and hope that they are as gracious should the Christmas table be turned next year.
Once you've done the rounds, find the person or people in the room that make you shine and focus all that energy and attention you've saved on them. And have a really great day.