It’s the most wonderful time of the year – at least it is according to the ppular song Christmas is a time for families to re-connect and come together, but while this can be merry and joyous, the festivities can also lead to a lot of tension for many families and feuds can flare up.
Keeping everybody happy can be challenging, and things get even trickier if your family has a complicated or sensitive set-up.
If you’re divorced and share custody of the children, or have a step family and two sets of in-laws, navigating the arrangements for the festive celebrations can pose an emotional minefield.
Having wed twice himself, with two children from each marriage, psychologist Cary Cooper, head of relationship counselling charity Relate, has first-hand experience of tackling complicated family arrangements, but he's confident that steps can be taken to keep stress to a minimum.
WHY THE STRESS?
According to Prof Cooper, Christmas is stressful because, often, it is one of only two times of the year that the family has to reintegrate emotionally for a substantial period of time. “At Christmas, you’re having to reintegrate with, say, your teenage kids, who during a normal week you’re just doing tactical behaviour with: ‘Who's picking you up?’, ‘Did you do your homework?’, ‘You're not listening very much; you’re not talking very much’.”
With this in mind, it’s no wonder spending more than a couple of days cooped up together can become intense. This is normal even when everybody gets on well. Throw tricky relationships into the mix, and tensions can rise even more.
For step families still in the early phase, adjusting to the new dynamics can take time, and members may barely know each other, let alone like each other.
This can be a big source of anxiety or tension, and things may feel even more sensitive at a time like Christmas.
Even ‘perfect’ families will experience some degree of tensionat extended gathering like Christmas, so don’t be too hard on yourself and accept that it’s normal to experience teething problems.
However, there are steps you can take to keep festive feuds low and festive fun high, and planning ahead is one of them.
Plan the presents, who you’re going to see and when. If that planning involves interacting with an ex-partner with whom you’re not on the best of terms, calling rather than emailing or texting is the safer option to avoid misunderstandings.
Togetherness doesn’t just happen spontaneously – see it as something you can help create. Get everyone involved in games, as families who play games seem to integrate quicker than the ones that don’t.
Another idea is to get the whole family involved in preparing the Christmas meal. For example, ask the kids to set the table, and the mothers-in-law to chop the veg.
It’s a good idea to plan an itinerary for Christmas Day, with activities that will get the whole family engaged and communicating well. A walk after the big meal is also a great way to relieve cabin fever.