The pressure of feeling that you need to get everything right for this one day, or that you have to manage a diary full of work, business and family events; catch-ups with friend and relatives; remembering to be mindful of alcohol and calorie consumption, can lead to increased stress, heightened emotions and lots of potential for conflict over the Christmas period.
Then there’s managing kids’ expectations. It’s not easy explaining to children that they can’t always get what they want or have things work out as they hope. Perhaps you must juggle Christmas and New Year celebrations over several houses, with vastly different family values and lifestyles.
You might be facing one of these scenarios:
1: You know old family grudges will resurface and you don’t want an argument. You will have to spend far too long with a relative you don’t get along with.
2: You are trying to juggle multiple blended family gatherings. You are separated or divorced and the kids have to travel between homes.
4: You are expected to attend multiple celebrations and you don’t know how to say no. You don’t want to do what the rest of your family is doing.
5: You are going to be alone this Christmas, perhaps the whole day. You are grieving for a family member who died, and you will sorely miss them.
Tips to Survive Your Family this Christmas
Scenario 1: 5 Tips for managing family conflicts
- Be aware that Christmas is a busy time and that everyone is under some pressure and stress, so arguments can easily erupt. Drop your past resentments even if others can’t. Try to forgive those people who can’t let go of past pain and recognise they are suffering – but do not join them!
- Keep your emotions in check by breathing slowly and deeply whenever you notice you are tense. This to reduce your heart rate. You might have to do this frequently. Take a 10–15-minute break if you need a little space – go play with the children.
- Have a little mantra you can repeat to remind yourself that these are not your problems, and you are not going to take these problems home with you!
- Don’t focus on fault-finding or blame, taking the morale high-ground or indulge your critical inner voice. We are all messy, mistake-ridden human beings. Even those people you don’t like. Don’t take other people’s issues on board or ruminate over past conflicts. Concentrating on what has or will go wrong will stop you seeing opportunities to improve relationships.
- Make a deal with your partner or another relative to signal ‘help me’ or ’15-minute warning that I’m ready to go soon’. Agree on what you will do to help each other.
Scenario 2. 5 Tips for managing family expectations
- When invited to a Christmas gathering, let family members know what you can realistically take on and what your limitations or restrictions are. Don’t over explain why or behave defensively. Let them handle their own disappointment or difficult reactions. Overstretching yourself will not be fun and you won’t succeed in solving everybody’s worries.
- Polish up your sense of humour. A few dark jokes beforehand may be a better way to manage things than a pre-event drink! Will you be surprised by the strange habits and the weird ways of your relatives? Predictable silliness It’s better than being shocked or outraged.
- It is important to keep perspective and acknowledge that Christmas can be a difficult time. Don’t expect to have it all together and that it will be perfect. Remember that having fun is better than perfection.
- Even if you don’t want to be there, try to find enjoyment during the day. Don’t use distraction or withdrawal as strategies to ‘zone out’; you will feel exhausted afterwards. Be present and be gentle with yourself and others.
- Christmas only comes once a year. Plan to stay as long as you can, be respectful and leave with pride when you need to.
Scenario 3. 5 Tips for separated or blended families
- It doesn’t have to all happen on Christmas Day! Make sure you arrange celebrations so that children can spend quality time with both parents or with multiple family arrangements. Remember that children will remember, and learn from, cooperative parenting but will feel burdened by warring parents.
- Try to make peace with your present situation, it will never be perfect. Rather than lamenting the past or worrying about the future, practice appreciating all the small moments of fun or good humour and share children’s excitement.
- Create new traditions that suit you and your changed family. Put your collective minds and humours together and jointly make up new ways of enjoying each other’s company. Let go of old rituals and traditions you can’t now retain.
- Choose your words wisely and take responsibility. Manage your own emotions, like the adult you are. Say to your children, “I am looking forward to seeing you” rather than, “I miss you so much.”
- Encourage kids to feel free to have fun without having to worry about adult issues, event management or conflicts. Make traveling between locations fun and an adventure. Put a blanket ban on thoughts and conversations about what is not enjoyable and push yourself to find a little joy in every frustration.
Scenario 4. 5 tips for managing kids’ expectations
- Spend time on fun and games that create a sense of family traditions. These are the memories they will treasure much more than an expensive present.
- Allow young children to be children: impatient, intrusive and excited with their new toys. Expect that they will want your attention and time. They will also become tired and irritable over time, so plan ahead how you will manage this.
- Let children know about family and other arrangements so they can understand your arrangements and what they can expect and are responsible for. If you can’t spend all day with your children, make this clear. If they have other things to get done on the day, not keeping them in the loop can increase anxiety.
- Don’t make promises to children if you have no intention or can’t keep them. Be honest and help them manage disappointments and sadness with your time and understanding. Christmas time is a complex and you don’t have to buy into the ‘perfect day’ myth. Neither do they.
- Be a good role model for your children and make greetings and partings positive and loving. Encourage their empathy and understanding of elders’ needs and of other difficult family members. No grumbles in the car after the event that they will overhear. Keep that conversation between adults.
Scenario 5 5 Tips for dealing with grief and aloneness
- Give yourself permission to grieve. It’s OK for Christmas to be a quiet and reflective time if that is what you need. Honour your sadness and the importance of your relationship with the person you have lost.
- Reconnect with your memories by doing something that you used to do together, like revisiting a favourite spot you shared or a shared ritual you both enjoyed. Perhaps write a message, poem or letter to that person. Express your feelings and thoughts.
- Take a long walk on the beach or in another lovely place. Be filled with nature rather than too much food! Enjoy silence and contemplation and ‘talk’ with your loved one.
- Don’t be shy, ask to be a ‘Christmas orphan’ at a friend’s gathering. Join in and meet new people at a local group’s gathering for people who do not have family or friends around to celebrate Christmas with. Volunteer to help serve Christmas Day lunch with a charitable organisation.
- Plan something special to treat yourself or contact a friend and set a date, time and place to catch up outside of the Christmas rush.
- Indulge in sleeping in. Eat chocolate for breakfast and have a long bath. Make a list of things you are thankful for and all the positive things in your life. Take a picnic brunch at a beautiful spot. Talk with the passers-by and perhaps make friends with a stranger. Garden all day long and have a well-deserved gin and tonic and sense of satisfaction.
Ask Elizabeth about her services to help you with:
- Troubled relationships in blended families, or families during and after separation
- Increasing your communication and confidence skills to help you speak up
- Conflict skills coaching to help you learn new strategies for dealing with conflict.