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Managing family tensions at Christmas 

13 December 2019

Christmas is a time many of us look forward to for a variety of reasons.  It could be due to time off work, the promise of presents, the chance to indulge ourselves with fine food or the chance to spend time with our loved ones.  

One of the unfortunate side effects of the season’s huge potential for happiness and contentment, however, is that sometimes we feel like have to give our families, and particularly our children, the perfect Christmas. 

For many families receiving our support the need to buy extra food, and arrange extra activities can provide a stark contrast to the season’s potential for rest and relaxation. 

However, even for families that can afford food, gifts and festivities the coordination required to produce a ‘perfect’ meal or gathering can be very stressful and also place pressures on those who’re not used to cooking for a larger group, have strained relationships with their wider family, or can’t afford to buy gifts for all the people in their lives.  

Family Action Deputy Director Sue Harper oversees several services which provide relationship and family support and says they often see the effect of these raised expectations regarding Christmas first-hand in the course of their work. 

Here Sue shares some top tips from the services she manages regarding dealing with some of the family pressures that can arise during the season. 

Perfect doesn’t exist 

Everywhere you look on television, in magazines and  shops there are images and stories designed to promote the image of an idyllic Christmas.  

This has become even more of a factor with the growth of social media, with people often only sharing the positive or exceptional aspects of their celebrations, leaving us with the feeling that everyone else is having a better time than we are 

For me, the media often drives expectations, but you have to be realistic – you don’t have to have 30 feet tree or a 60-foot hallway to put in it.  

We can’t stop the media portrayal of Christmas  but it’s about having conversations about what’s really important and what is realistic for your family. 

Be realistic about the situation – you might not be able to do it exactly as you would like but it’s your Christmas, and you’re not measuring yourself against anybody else. 

Be kind to yourself 

Ultimately, one of the most valuable things available to you during Christmas is your energy and enthusiasm, so take steps to ensure that you look after yourself during the Christmas season. Try to ensure you get enough sleep and don’t be too hard on yourself if there are things you can’t provide due to circumstances and/or available resources.  

Self-care is something that parents often neglect during the flurry to get things sorted for their family but you need to think about your own health and make that a priority.  

“We find that it can be useful for parents to do a little bit of research about mindfulness – paying attention to how you feel in the present moment rather than focusing on the past or future”.  

If you’ve not heard of mindfulness then there’s a good resource discussing simple mindfulness on the NHS’ pages here.

Preparation is your friend 

Understanding what you and your family want out of Christmas and planning accordingly can also ensure you don’t repeat mistakes from the past, or end up in situations where you argue about good intentions that aren’t right for your situation.  

Nobody wants to end up sitting around thinking ‘I didn’t want this'” so instead try to look ahead at what might cause problems, using past experiences to identify where the flash points might occur, rather than just letting events unfold.   

You can then think about how you might manage those situations differently, or even how you might be able to prevent them from occurring at all. 

Difficult conversations about gifts and contributions 

Sometimes family members may have more disposable income than you and this can cause tensions when they buy expensive gifts or luxury food items, which you can’t afford to reciprocate. 

Many people love to spoil their extended families and if it doesn’t bother you then it can take some pressure off you and set your mind at rest that your children will get some of the more expensive gifts they desire, or you can all enjoy luxury food you wouldn’t have otherwise. 

However, if this makes you feel uncomfortable why not agree in advance a maximum gift value and share out what everyone brings to family meals and events 

For some more tips about managing the cost of presents stay tuned for our piece about presents at Christmas. 

What can your family do for you? 

When you’re the person responsible for cooking Christmas dinner or trying to buy gifts for extended family and children, it can be overwhelming if you think only of your family’s expectations of you. 

By doing so you might be doing them a disservice, however.  

Grandparents, siblings and other family members often love to feel useful but don’t want to seem overbearing or pushy, and sometimes the older generation can feel redundant at Christmas 

In the case of our parents, they’ve been doing this job for a long time and have lots of skills they can use to help with the preparations and people often quite like to have a role to fill. 

Why not ask if they wouldn’t mind looking after the children while you go shopping or cook Christmas dinner? It might benefit you both!  

Christmas has a short shelf life 

Some of us are dealing with situations like poverty, family trauma or families separated for a variety of reasons, and it may be that regardless of how hard you try Christmas can still be a difficult time.  

In these situations, it perhaps helps to remember that this period will end and you can get on with life as normal.  

As well as thinking about the whole Christmas season in this way, it can also be a useful strategy for dealing with particular moments of tension over the season.  

You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to but if you do feel pressure to spend time in difficult family situations because of the time of year, you can always find a way to put a time limit on it in advance.  

For example, it helps to try and visit other people’s houses, so you’re in control of when you leave if you feel you need to. 

You’re not alone 

Our Family Monsters Project campaign, launched last year, focusing on highlighting the pressures shared by all families. We’ve seen first-hand how sharing our concerns and problems can help us to place them in context and make them feel less overwhelming. 

Talk to your friends about their family tensions and how they manage them – even if their concerns are different to yours it will help you to understand that nobody has it all figured out, and they may even be able to help you with strategies they’ve implemented which you can use. 

If family tensions are causing you concern then consider contacting our FamilyLine service. You can get in touch via telephone, text message or email for emotional support and guidance as well as practical advice and information. 

Sue Harper

Family Action's Deputy Director of Services.