Family dynamics

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Cutting out Christmas drama

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DREADING CHRISTMAS? Sometimes conflict is unavoidable, but how you deal with it could mean the difference between a happy, or heartbreaking Christmas.

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FEELING OVERWHELMED? You aren't alone, we all have high exceptions for this time of the year.

We're just over a month out from Christmas and the pressure is building to create magical memories. "Glad tidings", "Peace and good will", "Merry Christmas" - the festive season is touted as a time of peace and happiness.

However, as much as you might like for this year's festive season to be all about peace and unity, giving and sharing, circumstances out of your control including difficult relationships, separation, or divorce may have you dreading next month.

"Christmas is a time of celebration, a time to appreciate one another. Yet we know it is also a time when relationships can be put under enormous strain," says Jeff Sanders, Relationships Aotearoa Chief Executive.

"People get tired and often drink more. We might end up spending time with people we generally try to avoid. Sometimes we say or do something we wouldn't normally."

While it may not be possible to wave a magic wand and have everyone get along, it is possible to plan ahead and minimise any drama you think may crop up.

Keeping the family happy

Whether it is trying to see both sets of grandparents on Christmas day, so that no one feels left out, or managing your feelings about a sister in-law who has flopped down on your couch to read a book while you slave away in the kitchen, communication is key.

Before you lose your temper and say things you will later regret, Kathy Egan, counselling manager at Napier Family Centre says it is important to understand that expectations are generally high around Christmas and you may react emotionally to a situation.

"It's important for people to be aware that they need to take time to reflect on what is happening and not to react," Egan, who has 30 years experience in counselling, says.

"Talk it over with your partner, or talk it over with yourself and think about how you can respond in a constructive way without being reactive."

It would help to think on how you can respond to the family member without being too negative, or too critical, Egan says.

The best way to start a conversation, perhaps with a family member who isn't pulling their weight is to start with " I am feeling..." rather than bottling up how you feel and blowing up at a family member after a couple of glasses of wine on Christmas day.

Being honest and assertive in a gentle, kind way is the best way to handle expectations, especially when it comes to keeping grandparents happy. 

If you are looking at spreading visits out over Christmas explain in an assertive, calm way to parties affected what your expectations are for your partner and your kids.

"This is a real issue for some families. The only way to tackle this is to speak to the party concerned face-to-face," says Egan.

"Explain that spending Christmas as a nuclear family is what you have decided you want to do for your family and it doesn't mean you don't love them, but you need it to be just you, but you will see them the day before or the day after."

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In a nutshell:

Reflect: Look at the situation without emotion and talk to your partner. Some time out from the situation will give you a chance to look at the situation objectively, to decide if you are reacting emotionally or not and to think about how best to tackle it.

Don't over-react: Words do wound and a screaming match will not only upset you, but could end up ruining Christmas for everyone.

Be honest: If you know that your husband and your mum don't get along, trying to force a get-together without drama might not be possible. Feeling you should or have to do something isn't always a good reason to do it. Be honest with yourself and others.

Pace yourself: As much as you would love for your kids to see both sets of grandparent on Christmas day, the Christmas spirit doesn't have to be crammed into December 25

Keeping up with the budget

Arguments over money are the most common in relationships and having the added expectations from children and family over Christmas can be overwhelming.

As much as you would like to meet everyone's expectations in this regard, honesty is the best policy and speaking about it beforehand will make sure that you don't spend your Christmas fretting about your January bank statement.

"I think it is important for parents to realise that they don't need to spend a lot of money on Christmas presents. While children do have expectations, giving time to them, playing together and doing fun things is just as important," says Egan.

Relationships Aotearoa has some helpful tips on how you can manage expectations and conflict that may arise as a result of money matters:

It's not disagreeing, it's how you disagree: Disagreeing about money and financial security isn't necessarily terminal. If you fight to win, whether you get hot and angry or cold and cutting, you probably make the argument worse.

Keep civil: This will influence how damaging your arguments are. Let your partner look after their own behaviour. If you get worked up and blame your partner, or say something nasty or hurtful, own up to it and apologise quickly.

Identify other issues: When you disagree about money, there are often other issues involved as well. It might be about whose priorities come first, who makes the decisions, whose work or time matters the most, whether what each of you get - and go without - feels balanced. It's worth figuring this out. These are fertile sources of resentment and a budget won't fix them.

Listen: You may be able to sympathise with your partner's concerns, even if it's different for you. This is not the time to explain why their view is wrong and yours is better. It's the time to find out what makes their view so right from their perspective.

Focus on understanding what affects your partner the most: When you really work like this to see your partner's point of view you show that you care what they think and feel. Once that happens you have the basis for a genuine discussion about money issues, and how the two of you choose to deal with them.

So if your heart was set on packing up the car and driving from Wellington to Auckland with the kids for Christmas, but your partner feels that you do not have the money to do that over the festive season, talk about the problem and the possible solutions.

Perhaps you could Skype with the family on Christmas Day and all eat around the computer or you could compromise on the December trip and visit over Easter instead.

Christmas can be costly; here are some ideas to keep the budget manageable:

  • Secret Santa: For the adults, instead of buying a present for every member of the family, put the names in a hat, each person can draw one and buy a present for that family member.
  • Be honest: Talk with each other about what you want to do for the kids in the family, is there a price range for the toys?
  • Think outside the box: Instead of buying toys for the kids in the family, maybe you can get a gift voucher for an amount you can afford and they can put it towards something they would really like, or maybe they have a savings account you can put some money into.
  • Share the load: Instead of one member of the family doing all the cooking and hosting, let everyone bring a dish.

Keep sober

It's not uncommon to crack open a drink fairly early in the day and keep drinking throughout the day. Keep an eye on your consumption. "Think before you drink. People often say things they would never have said had they not been drinking," Egan explains.

Domestic violence is often as a result of alcohol abuse and Egan says more women go to women's refuges around the country that at any other time of the year.

"Too much time together and too much alcohol seems to be the biggest trigger," she explains.

Keeping up with the ex

Separation and divorce can be especially difficult to cope with over Christmas time.

"What normally happens is that mum is the day-to-day carer of the children and the children may go off to dad for half a day or for the day," Egan explains.

"It is really important for mum to say 'I am really happy for you to be spending today with dad and I have something special planned for me'. The children need to know that their mum is going to be ok on the day and don't need to worry."

Egan says that children will worry about their mum being alone, a responsibility that is not fair for them to shoulder.

"This obviously applies if the situation is the other way around. This can be a difficult time, but a mother has to be a mother - the maternal feelings have to override the 'poor me' - you cannot put those things on your children, it damages their mental health," cautions Egan.  

  • Make plans early: So everybody knows what is going on. If you need help with making these plans, consider going to the family court if you are battling to make these arrangements yourself.
  • Don't interrogate them when they get back: Firing off a barrage of questions about what your kids did at their mother's/father's on Christmas Day will only make them feel like they shouldn't have gone.
  • Look for support if you need it: The dissolution of a marriage is incredibly painful and there may be feelings you are still trying to process. If you are feeling overwhelmed, look for support - perhaps even before Christmas, so that you know how to manage what may be a difficult time.

Christmas Tips from Relationships Aotearoa

  1. Make time to relax with those you love.
  2. Christmas is a season, not just one day.
  3. Spread the celebrations out. 
  4. Ask for help. Offer help. Share the load
  5. Try and put longstanding disagreements aside for the day and enjoy yourselves.
  6. If things do get tense, take a deep breath, change the subject or walk away.
  7. Steer clear of disagreements when you drink.
  8. Use a little self-control so you don't say or do something hurtful.
  9. Lighten the financial pressure on your relationship. Set a dollar limit for gifts and food.
  10. Take time out as well as time off, allow some time just for you.

Resources

Lifeline

Relationships Aotearoa


 

 

 

 

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