Keep the peace: 9 ways that families dealing with addiction can minimise conflict this holiday season

parents decorate a christmas tree with their young child

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A recent presentation for BreakThrough: Families understanding addiction discussed how families who are dealing with problems related to alcohol and drugs can minimise conflict over the holiday season. We thought we’d share some of their tips.

One in 10 Australians admit to dreading the holiday. Reasons such as the expense of the season, the stress of arranging the festivities, or the loneliness of not having anybody to spend it with are all commonly cited. It’s understandable that many of these pressures might be amplified for families who are dealing with problems related to alcohol or drugs. 

At Counselling Online it’s common for us to hear from family members who are worried about Christmas. Some have family members who are struggling a little, while others have family members with long term dependence. Here are a few things that people tell us they dread: 

  • Leaving family members who are struggling with substances out of the festivities. Many loved ones feel guilt and shame when they decide to enforce a boundary and express great anxiety about explaining their decision to the family member. On the other hand: 
  • Including family members who have substance issues and a history of intoxication, disruption and arguments at family gatherings. 
  • Witnessing the declining physical and mental health of a loved one since last year.
  • Verbal and physical altercations.
  • The impact on other family members, particularly elderly people and children. 
  • Being asked for money, risking items being stolen.
  • Experiencing exhaustion and despair over another Christmas just as bad as the others.
  • Being asked by well-meaning others what they are doing (or did) for Christmas. 
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Prepare yourself for success
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Prepare yourself for success

Just like you need to plan the menu to pull off a fancy Christmas dinner, you can also do some planning to promote a more positive experience for yourself and your loved ones. 
 

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1. Identify what has and has not worked for your family in the past.
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1. Identify what has and has not worked for your family in the past.

Reflect on past events and identify if there are any common themes associated with positive or negative experiences. Writing these thoughts down can be helpful to draw out memories and connections that might not immediately come to mind. 

Think about when big conflicts have occurred. What were the triggers? Can they be avoided this time? Are there tensions between individuals that seem to inevitably end in quarrels? Are arguments always preceded by discussions about money, work, or family history? Does Kris Kringle seem to always end in tears? 

Try not to focus only on conflict directly involving the person who is dealing with problems related to substances. Anxiety tends to spread. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by an excessively ambitious dinner menu, that anxiety you feel will feed into tension on the day —  so make sure you’re sensitive to your own triggers! Identifying people and situations that provoke anxiety will help you to plan to minimise tension and set all family members up for success. 

Similarly, consider positive experiences. Is there a friend or family member that helps your loved one feel calmer and more in control? Can you choose an environment where everybody feels more relaxed and comfortable — maybe even neutral territory, like a park? Are you going to have a better time if you have a small celebration, just for you and your loved one, even if it’s not on Christmas day? 
 

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2. Set expectations for yourself and others and communicate them in advance
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2. Set expectations for yourself and others and communicate them in advance

It’s important to create clear expectations and verbalise them directly rather than assuming — or hoping — everyone is on the same page. Have an honest conversation with your loved one and work with them to set expectations. When working out your plans for the day and whether you will spend it together, ask questions like: 

  • We’d love to have you home for Christmas and for everyone to have a nice day. How can we all make that happen? 
  • How has the year been for you? Are you feeling like you’re going to struggle with substance use leading up to Christmas? How can you support yourself to manage? Is there anything we can do to support you? 
  • If you’re struggling to cope with the day, what would you like to do? Maybe you could go for a walk with someone, have a sleep, or set a time limit on being there. 
  • Would you prefer to catch up separately from the rest of the family?  

Once you have decided to spend the day together, create clear expectations of what you want from each member of the family. 

  • Set an explicit time frame — e.g., you expect everybody to arrive by 12pm for a 1pm lunch, and everybody can leave by 3pm. 
  • Delegate tasks — some families ask that every adult brings a plate, others that each is responsible for a different aspect of the event. Decide what would work for you. 
  • Manage gift giving — decide together whether gifts will be expected, set price limits or plan a Kris Kringle. 
  • Outline the behaviour expected from your loved ones and set contingencies for negative behaviours (e.g., if anybody begins to feel combative they should excuse themselves and maybe take a breather, take a walk). 
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3. Keep the festivities simple
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3. Keep the festivities simple

Sometimes it’s tempting to overcompensate for your anxiety by throwing yourself into planning an elaborate menu and lots of festive activities, but this increases the amount of preparation and emotional load you need to juggle. It’s a recipe for tension. Instead, go easy on yourself — choose simple recipes you can make in advance, host a pot luck, or even splash out on catering. Another option is a grocery subscription Christmas box, such as the Hello Fresh Christmas Box, which will allow you to skip the shopping and fiddly parts of the preparation while still cooking at home. 
 

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4. Practice self-care around the holiday
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4. Practice self-care around the holiday

In the lead-up and aftermath of Christmas, plan things that can help you feel calmer, nurtured, comforted and refreshed. Prepare yourself to be accepting of the things you cannot change by investing your time in people and activities that help to fortify you. In the days leading up to Christmas and the days after, consider:

  • Catching a movie
  • Spending a day outdoors, at the park, beach, or countryside
  • Catching up with a friend
  • Preparing a gift for yourself — open it when it’s all over
  • Journalling about what went well, and what you might change for next year. Think about how things could be different through the year so there is not so much pressure placed upon one day at the end of the year. 
     
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5. Plan contingencies if conflict or trouble arises
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5. Plan contingencies if conflict or trouble arises 

It’s okay to plan for the worst and hope for the best. Be mindful of the language you use. Avoid words such as disappointed, angry, and avoid asking questions like, ‘why can’t you stop, when are you going to stop, why me?’ 

Decide what you’ll do if the situation deteriorates. This will be different for every family depending on the circumstances.

You may elect one family member to pull the person who is struggling with substances aside and gently ask them to leave, or even escort them home. You might need to take more serious action. Give yourself permission to do what you need to protect yourself and your family, including the person who is using substances. 
 

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6. It’s ok to walk away or take a time out
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6. It’s ok to walk away or take a time out

You don’t have to be ‘on’ all day. If you’re struggling, it’s ok to excuse yourself for a walk, take some time for yourself, breathe and regroup. Your happiness and peace is as important as anybody else’s, even if you’re the host. You’ll be better able to handle any problems that arise if you take the time to tend to your own needs. 

You might even give a helpline a call or chat to us online. We can help you regroup and strategise to face the rest of the day.
 

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7. It’s ok to skip the festivities altogether
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7. It’s ok to skip the festivities altogether

The pressure to celebrate as a family can be immense, but if you feel overwhelming dread at the entire idea of Christmas lunch, you are completely within your rights to decide you just don’t want to do it this year. Some people might be confused or angry, but you are not obligated to make decisions based only on their feelings. Most people will understand — Christmas is overwhelming for everybody now and then. 

You do not have to make excuses or explain your decision to acquaintances. Sometimes it’s even okay to tell a white lie to protect your privacy. 

Take the day for yourself, put your phone on do not disturb, and curl up on the couch with the dog and a favourite movie, or spend time on a favourite hobby. Do what you need to do for you. 
 

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8. Remember: You are not helpless
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8. Remember: You are not helpless

You can’t stop the person using drugs, change the person, control them or fix them. The decision to change their path in life begins with them. Still, you are not helpless. What you can do is make decisions, set boundaries, and decide what steps you are going to take. It’s important to recognise your own agency and identify the decisions you can make to improve your own experience, even if you can’t make the changes you want to see in your loved one’s life.
 

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9. Reach out for support
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9. Reach out for support

Chat to us online, we can help you strategise for Christmas and deal with the aftermath. You can also jump onto our peer support forums to connect with other friends and family who understand what you’re going through. 
 

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What can I do next?
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What can I do next?