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Managing family relationships during a COVID-19 Christmas 

30 November 2020

Spending time with family at Christmas is magical but it can also put a strain on family relationships, this year more than ever. Here we share some helpful ways to manage tensions in your family during a COVID-19 Christmas.

Our experts from our services tell us that family tensions can run high at Christmas, as we worry about giving both our children and our extended family the “perfect Christmas”. This traditionally involves worry over providing food, arranging activities and buying thoughtful gifts, and can be challenging for those who have strained relationships with their wider family, suffer anxiety or are experiencing time pressures or financial worries.

In addition to these normal worries, this year sees a whole new range of complications thrown into the mix due to COVID-19 and measures in place to contain it. Even those families who have managed to find a balance in the past will face challenges in meeting with family and sharing those moments that make the season special. We’ve compiled some useful tips from both our experts and families on how to manage family relationships during this unique, historic and unprecedented Christmas time.

Set your baseline 

The past year has seen a range of controls put in place to manage the spread of the virus – whether that’s full lockdowns, partial lockdowns or the “tier” system, where certain areas have seen harsher restrictions than others. It might help to imagine what the “worst-case” scenario looks like, and plan your festivities accordingly. The government may decide to relax the rules for Christmas, but it’s better to see this scenario as an unexpected positive. Instead, decide what you’d like to happen this Christmas for your immediate family, and plan which other family members you could see if there are partial changes to the rules, and discuss it with your wider family.  

It will still be hard 

Unless we see a last-minute decision by the government to fully relax the rules for Christmas this year, it’s likely most families will have to abandon their usual plansOne mum we spoke to said: “We don’t know what to do… normally we’d have two celebrations – one at home and one with my partner’s family – but with the restrictions we don’t know if that’s going to go ahead. It makes me feel a bit down as the whole family’s usually there. It’s a real celebration and we all love going to see them.”

Before we race to try and make alternative plans we must accept that it’s going to be very different this year, so we can move on and try and enjoy what we do have. If you worry that sounds too gloomy, why not take a look at our recent article regarding making Christmas magical this year, where parents share tips on keeping the festive seasons special.  

Grandparents still want to be involved

Even though it’s unclear if we will be able to invite extended families over is during the festive season, grandparents still cherish the time spent with their children and grandchildren. So, if they live near you why not get creative with a winter walk to their house, armed with hot drinks and mince pies for a socially distanced gathering outside the house(Assuming restrictions allow it). It may not be ideal, but follow the maxim and aim for “a good time, not a long time”.  

Top tip: Saving granny’s present until the walk should help to convince tired children and truculent teens alike of the value of making the trip! Mum Gemma suggests families may want to utilise some of the tricks she learned earlier during isolation. 
She said: “My grandfather passed away just before COVID-19 and so being alone was new to my grandmotherAs we couldn’t see her in person, I got my children to write signs saying “we miss you and we love you” and we walked past the window where she could see them”. 

Get grandparents and parents online

At this point most of us will consider this an obvious suggestion but having access to video chat software such as WhatsAppFaceTime or Zoom is a lifesaver in terms of keeping the wider family connected. Yes, teaching family members to use technology is up there with amateur dentistry and one of the least fun ways to spend a few hours, but if you’ve been putting it off until now, Christmas may be the justification you need to get them sorted. Zoom publishes a range of simple guides on its website but, in our humble opinion, these might still require a level of tech-savvy to use. Therefore, we recommend calling your family on their landline or mobile first (or however you usually call them) so that you can walk them through the process step by step. 

Have a plan 

Part of what makes Christmas special is the expectation of the times to come, so it can be nice for children when we include them in the planning. Why not write out what you’re doing in the weeks leading up to Christmas and mark it on a calendar to create a sense of expectation and joy? These needn’t be huge milestones and can include when you:   

  • Pick up/decorate the tree 
  • Put the decorations up 
  • All prepare and mail out Christmas cards 
  • Do the Christmas shopping 

“Because they’ve all got jobs to do, they all feel involved.”

You can even have a timetable for the big day itself detailing when you open presents, have dinner or call grandparents… Although parents should be aware that planning to keep little ones in their beds Christmas morning is ambitious, to say the least! 

Planning in detail can be a good strategy for any family but parents tell us this can be particularly useful for families where children have additional needs, as this way guarantees no surprises for them, which should help to prevent potential meltdowns.   

Give everyone a job 

As we noted in our last point, involving our children at Christmas is often the key to ensuring they engage with it. Parent Lucy says she gives all her children a job to do relating to Christmas dinner. “My eldest is planning the Christmas menus, my middle child is helping me create the party favours and my youngest is going to design all the place names for the table. She’s very crafty and passionate about that in particular, but because they’ve all got jobs to do, they all feel involved”. 

Manage your media 

Matilda’s devoted Uncle Mark is shielding due to a pre-existing health condition and says he may be among those who can’t see his extended family as much as he’d like this year. However, as he shares a love of music and film with his sister and niece Amy, the family are putting together a playlist of music and films they can share. You can follow their example to ensure that, even though you may be apart, you’re still sharing the same things, and can pick up the conversation where you left off in the days that follow.  

Close Communities 

One of the best things families have shared with us during this difficult year is that communities have become more tightly knit, with events like the VE day celebrations in May taking on a more meaningful role in our lives than ever before. Why not harness some of that spirit over the Christmas period, with a socially distanced street party? Even if restrictions are in place you can always introduce ideas such as “bring your own” mulled wine and mince pies and a distanced carol service. 
If the restrictions allow groups to meet outdoors, at the time, you could even invite family to visit the event and catch up outdoors. The weather is always a turnoff, but we think mum of three Liz put it best when we were doing our research for this article: She said: “Remember… There’s no such thing as bad weather, just incorrect clothing!” 

Take it outdoors 

No, we’re not suggesting that family relations are so bad you might want to consider fighting with themIf you have a sheltered outdoor area you could consider using (or purchasing) an outdoor fire pit to heat the area and/or a gazebo to protect you from the elements so family can come and visit, should the guidance allow thisWe’d definitely advise you to wrap up warm, but larger families could split the cost and, if you manage to make it work, it may go down in the books as a family Christmas to remember!  

Get more stories, ideas, and inspiration to make your Christmas magic or contact our FamilyLine for information, guidance, and support on an issue affecting your family.