It’s the most wonderful time of the year – at least it is according to the popular 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.
Psychologist Professor Cary Cooper is head of relationship counselling charity Relate and a panel member for the Centre for the Modern Family, which aims to improve understanding of families in the 21st century. Cooper points out that only 16% of modern day families in the UK fit the traditional model, defined as two married parents living together with two or more children.
Having wed twice himself, with two children from each marriage, Cooper 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 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. During the rest of the year, family members are only “tactically” connecting. “A characteristic of the modern family – traditional or otherwise – is they lead a very diverse life and only come together for a longish period of time over Christmas and family holidays.
“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’.
“Now, you’re dumped in a box for 10 days, and that process of reintegrating is stressful because you’re having to tolerate everybody else, whereas before you could just do your own thing.”
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 – for both children and adults. Both may feel the pressure to ensure everybody’s happy, and there may be feeling of guilt and sadness, from both sides, for the parent who misses out.
Even the most ‘perfect’ of families will experience some degree of tension (or at least need a little breather every now and then!) at extended gathering like Christmas, so first and foremost, 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 help keep festive feuds low and festive fun high, and planning ahead is a good place to start.
“Planning has to be early,” says Cooper. “Plan the presents, who you’re going to see and when. Particularly in a modern family with all the step kids and the shared custody, it causes a lot of conflict to do it two weeks before Christmas.”
If planning involves interacting with an ex-partner with whom you’re not on the best of terms, Cooper is adamant that calling rather than emailing or texting is the safer option.
“In an email – you just make one mistake and use a particular word and you could get into real trouble,” he advises. “I would call them up, and when you call, be very, very patient and careful about what you say.”
He also suggests enlisting the help of the grandparents, if communication is particularly fraught: “The grandparents frequently have a better relationship with your ex than you do. They have to ensure good relations as otherwise they may not get access to their grandchildren.”
“If you want the family to be together with the minimal amount of tension, get them to do something as a unit,” says Cooper. “A good way of doing that is actually getting everyone involved in family games. 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 vegetables: “It’s a way of communicating, it’s a way of getting everyone engaged,” explains Cooper.
Delegating different parts of the preparation could even extend to sharing the cost of provisions, which may help alleviate stress and resentment, and – again – help create unity. “The more you feel you’re part of something, rather than a guest, the better it is,” says Cooper.
He believes it’s a good idea to plan an itinerary for Christmas Day, with lots of activities that will get the whole family engaged and communicating well, and a walk after the big meal is a great way to relieve cabin fever.
If you are fretting about Christmas, or end up seething on the day, remember that you’re probably not the only one. Every member of the family is likely to be dealing with their own niggles, which is especially important to remember when you have a new step family.
While planning the day and the activities, show consideration for others’ needs, and allow them to make suggestions too, should they want to. Perhaps they feel Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a fun round of charades, or maybe they have a breakfast custom they’d love to be incorporated.
With this in mind, try to be patient and be understanding of how the festive period may be stressful for everybody concerned. Your step children may want time to phone other relatives at various points during the day – always be supportive and encouraging.
As well as unity, equality is crucial – and one main example of this is with present buying.
With an expansive family, presents can cause huge financial strain, but according to Cooper, it’s less about cost and more about equality: “The more important part is whether there’s a difference between the presents. If I bought my son a season ticket to Manchester City, and bought my stepson a CD, there might be a problem. And sometimes you might buy your stepson something more expensive than your son as a way of compensating.”
Cooper suggests that the whole family agrees on a maximum price per present, to prevent such discrepancies occurring.
EMBRACE THE JOY!
On a final positive note, Cooper urges families to embrace their diversity. With a heartening 55% of those surveyed by the Centre for Modern Families wishing they could spend more time with their family, he believes that Christmas can be the most wonderful time of the year: “There’s a lot of stress when families meet, no question about it. But if it’s managed properly and there’s not too much hostility, they’ll start enjoying being in this extended family.”