Saying 'no' to family pressures at Christmas

18 December 2015

The older generation of a family can often be the most put-upon. So if you’re slightly dreading Christmas and all the roles you’re expected to perform, read our tips for saying 'no' politely.



Grandparents aren’t as grand as they used to be: once they were generally seen as highly respected figures, to whom children should look up and before whom they should never be naughty.

Nowadays you could certainly say the relations between family members are less formal and possibly warmer – my grandchildren would choke with laughter at any suggestion they should dread my disapproval.

But there’s another side to the friendly informality of today’s families: too many grandparents feel they’re just taken for granted, even exploited. Busy parents can assume the grandparents will be ready to step in and help whenever they are needed, whether it’s babysitting or a loan (at least it’s called a loan).

They’re also expected to drive older children around and host the Christmas meal.

Of course, there are some grans and granddads who can’t get enough of this – but there are just as many who can feel exhausted, put upon – or you might simply have your own ideas of how you want to spend your time.

Busy parents seem not only to assume that the grandparents will always help with the children, but also take it for granted that seeing the little ones is all they want. So the grandparents are not included in grown-up occasions and outings – pantomime, yes; tickets for Glyndebourne, no.

If this sounds like you, read on; the following may help you – if only in future years if it’s already too late for this Christmas…

Read our tips for house guest etiquette at Christmas.

Why we say ‘yes’

Most of us are programmed to be ‘nice’ to other people. Experts show us how to toughen up.

Psychologist Jacqui Marson says, ‘We find it so hard to say no because of the rules we’ve set ourselves that tell us how to behave. These are often quite rigid, saying we should be helpful and kind. The flipside is the thought: “What would happen if I weren’t those things?”

The fear is that people will no longer like you, or they’ll think you’re selfish.

‘You don’t want to jeopardise close relationships, but by not learning to say no we’re in real danger of building resentment, having health problems and getting burnt out. We need to look after ourselves so we can look after others.’

Conrad Potts, co-author of Assertiveness: How to be Strong in Every Situation, suggests a series of small, confidence-building steps that will allow you to feel you are gaining control of your life.

It could be something as simple as talking to a neighbour you never normally bother with – what this does, he says, is show you that you can take control of things instead of always letting others take the lead.

Hypnotherapist James Mallinson, co-founder of fixmymind.co.uk, points out that most retirees will have enjoyed moments of assertiveness during their career.

‘Cast your mind back to different periods of your life when you were able to say no, and draw inspiration from that,’ he says. ‘Then work on your body language and the tone of your voice; words only make up seven per cent of the message we’re trying to put across.’

Jacqui Marson adds: ‘The wrong way to say no is to do it in a way that suggests you only half-mean it – with hunched shoulders, lots of waffle and eyes to the ground. You’re priming yourself into being guilt-tripped into changing your mind. Say no confidently, with body language to match.

How to be nice about 'no'

Seven sticky social situations – and how to get out of them without causing offence.

1. Say 'no' to hosting Christmas

Without even asking, the whole family has decided they’ll be descending on you for Christmas dinner.

What you’ll say: ‘How lovely!’
What you might be thinking: ‘I wonder if I can book a last-minute flight to Tahiti?’
Action plan: ‘You need to avoid agonising over it,’ says Jacqui Marson, ‘because it will get you nowhere. Try saying you really don’t want to do it this time and give an honest reason, such as you don’t fancy it or can’t afford it. Then suggest a brainstorm to find a solution that suits all. It might be that a family down the street always goes to a hotel for Christmas dinner, or someone might suggest you each take a dish to their place and do it that way.’

2. Say 'no' to extravagant gifts

One of your children has asked you to buy an unreasonably extravagant gift for a grandchild.

What you’ll say: ‘Great! I was thinking of going to Harrods!’
What you might be thinking: ‘I didn’t realise that I’d won the lottery.’
Action plan: ‘A good tactic is to let people know in advance what your budget for gifts is this year,’ says James Mallinson. If you’ve left it too late, and the demand for a £500 bike for your grandson is staring you in the face, James suggests asking the parent to explain why the child really wants it. ‘Question the purpose of it and really drill down into why it’s on the list; then you might be able to suggest an alternative that fulfils the same need without the outlay.’

3. Say 'no' to staying late at parties

It’s 1am, you’d like to leave your friends’ Christmas party, but they’re imploring you to stay or you’ll be a ‘spoilsport’.

What you’ll say: ‘Oh go on then, just one more for the road!’
What you might be thinking: ‘I’m falling asleep and I wish I’d sneaked out hours ago.’
Action plan: Etiquette expert William Hanson, author of The Bluffer’s Guide to Etiquette says, ‘If you stand up to leave at a perfectly acceptable time such as 1am,’ he says, ‘take it as a compliment that they are enjoying your company. Be firm and say what a lovely time you’ve had, but you must go now because you have an early start the next day or whatever. Don’t show any sign of backing down, or they will seize upon this.’ James Mallinson suggests another trick: just say, ‘Yes, I know you’d like us to stay, but we’ve really got to go or we’ll never get to bed.’

4. Say 'no' to events you aren't interested in

A friend has given you tickets for her daughter’s Christmas pantomime, which you have no interest in attending.

What you’ll say: ‘Thank you – what a lovely idea. Children are what Christmas is all about!’
What you might be thinking: ‘I’ll just have to catch the end of Strictly on iPlayer.’
Action plan: This is where Jacqui Marson suggests a ‘gracious no’. ‘Tell them you’re delighted to have been asked because she’s such a great little actress, and then say you’ll have to get back to them. Call back the next morning and say you can’t come for whatever reason, and finish with something about hoping to make it next year – or about knowing the daughter will be the star of the show.

‘If you know that there’s going to be an awkward conversation, think about it in advance and spend some time getting your mind and body into a relaxed state. The easiest way to do that is to focus on your breathing.’

5. Say 'no' to babysitting

You have been asked at the last minute to look after the grandchildren so mum and dad can go to a party.

What you’ll say: ‘Of course!’
What you might be thinking: ‘More than ten minutes’ notice would have been nice.’
Action plan: ‘Try the “no sandwich”,’ says assertiveness expert Conrad Potts. ‘First, acknowledge what you’ve been asked by repeating it. Next comes the hardest part – actually saying no. You need to give an honest reason, for example, “That’s really precious time to me, and I just can’t spare it” – and repeat it several times.’

Potts says it would be a mistake to invent an excuse because there’s a good chance you’ll be found out. Then there’s the final part of the sandwich, in which you concede something so that it becomes more of a win/win for everybody. ‘It might be something like, “If you let me have more notice next time, I’ll certainly consider it and will probably say yes.”.’

6. Say 'no' to lengthy phone conversations

A friend or relative always calls you at the wrong time and you’re too polite to say anything.

What you’ll say: ‘Oh, lovely to hear from you!’
What you might be thinking: ‘I wonder if I can get the phone disconnected?’
Action plan: ‘This is a real problem for many,’ says Jacqui, ‘but it is one of the easier ones to deal with.’ The trick is simply to be assertive – even if a tearful friend on the line has started with, ‘We’ve had another row!’

‘The best thing to say is that you’re just cooking supper or putting the grandchildren to bed. Call them back the next day when it suits you. Don’t stay on the phone too long or you’ll give the caller the space to guilt-trip you.’

7. Say 'no' to lending money to family

A relative asks you to dip into your nest egg for a ‘loan’ that you know will never be paid back.

What you’ll say: ‘Don’t worry – we’ve plenty to be getting on with!’
What you might be thinking: ‘There goes the new fridge.’
Action plan: According to William Hanson, your first line of defence should be to say that you would like some time to think about it. ‘Just don’t feel pressured to reply on the spot,’ he says. ‘Then you can give them an honest answer later, when you’ve had time to consider your response, perhaps saying that you don’t really have much cash to spare at the moment – perhaps because you’ve spent so much money on Christmas presents this year.’

If you feel the need to help or really don’t want to give an outright no, William suggests you could offer some or all of the money as an advance Christmas gift for next year: ‘Even if you’re not giving the total amount they’ve asked for, they should still appreciate your kind gesture,’ he says.

Introduction: Katherine Whitehorn
Words: Mike Peake

For more tips for surviving Christmas, see our Christmas Guides & Tips.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

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