The societal and financial expectation to make Christmas special can end up with a pressure cooker bubbling to boiling point over the Christmas season, says Dr Rachel Adams, a counselling psychologist at our Exeter centre, as she shares some suggestions for a more harmonious holiday...
‘Tis the season to be jolly’ is what we’re often told, yet for many, the festive season fills them with dread and anxiety. Excited (and then, tired children), blended families, absent family members, as well as drunk, grumpy, bossy or awkward family members, can all bring their challenges. Mix this up with many family members staying in one house, old grudges and irritations, the societal and financial pressure to make Christmas special and you can end up with a pressure cooker slowly bubbling to boiling point over the Christmas season.
Firstly, I’d like to say, I am yet to meet the ‘perfect’ family. By that, I mean a family that gets on all of the time, communicates effectively all of the time, never has any disagreements or arguments and where no-one holds any grudges or irritations towards another family member. I’m not saying it’s healthy to be arguing or holding grudges, after all, high drama and chaos can cause all sorts of emotional and psychological distress. However, to try and assume that all family members can be best friends and wanting to do the same thing all of the time is unrealistic. When family members feel a pressure to be ‘playing out’ the notion of the perfect happy family they can sometimes end up repressing their true feelings and become resentful. Alternatively, they cause disruption or seek to sabotage the celebrations.
Tips for getting through the festive season
Consider the amount of time you will be spending with family. Can this be broken up in some way? If staying with family for four days, consider does it have to be four days, who sets the rule? Could it be two or three days instead. Sometimes short and sweet stays are more successful and enjoyable.
Consider whether a conversation ahead of time could eliminate or reduce any possible stress. For example – if you know that your mother is going to keep giving your son sugary sweets that disrupt his behaviour and sleep, have a conversation ahead of time to request that he is only given sweets between certain times.
Plan your time – if you are going to stay with relatives in their house or relatives are coming to stay at yours for days, think about how you can break this time up into punctuated chunks. Many people cooped up in a house for days on end with an expectation for forced fun, can trigger different things in different people. Make time to get out for a walk or in the fresh air. Encourage people to take an afternoon nap or time in their room to read. Sometimes it can be helpful to model this to people by saying things like – “I’m feeling a little low in energy so I’m going to take myself out for a walk to the village” or “I’m going to have forty winks upstairs”. It’s amazing how so often people will suddenly say “oh yes me too” as if they have actually been given permission to do what they wanted to do but didn’t have the courage to initiate.
Supportive coaching statement and mantras – before Christmas, think of some positive statements that you can say to yourself quietly during the Christmas period. “this is just one week of my year and I will get through this”.
Consider any space within the house or hotel that you can take yourself away to for a few moments – take time to go to the bathroom or outdoors if feeling wound up. Take some long and slow deep breaths to calm your nervous system.
Before Christmas, find an object to use as a calming anchor in your pocket e.g jewellery, key ring or small pebble. When you hold this object, take a deep breath and remember these feelings will pass.
Alcohol - are you anticipating that you or others may drink too much and become challenging? If so, how can you break the constant flow of alcohol and model something different. Sometimes we can slow the drinking down by responding with “I’ve had enough wine at the moment, I think I’ll have a cup of tea now”. That said, please remember we can only be responsible for ourselves.
I hope you enjoy your Christmas and can tolerate your family (warts and all). Remember as you sit down to eat your Christmas dinner, this could be your last one ever, or the last time you eat a meal with some of these family members. This can often help to put any minor irritations into perspective. As I once heard a Family Constellation Therapist say ‘take the best of it and leave the rest of it’.