These include family tensions, stress created by pressure to be “ready” for Christmas, managing loss and associated grief at Christmas time after a friend or family member’s death, or divorce of parents, or being part of a new or blended family or missing family members who are away for Christmas. As well financial pressures associated with gift giving and holiday events can add stress and pressure to parents or carers which can flow on to impact children and young people. This Hot Topic has been prepared to assist parents and carers with some practical suggestions on ways to manage Christmas.
Why can Christmas cause stress?
In Western culture, Christmas is seen as a time for families to be together in spite of any difficulties in getting on. The pressure for families to be together during this time can mean that stress and even conflict can occur in the lead up to Christmas as preparations are being made and different people may have different expectations about what will happen. Examples of the kind of issues include: The stress of preparing for Christmas on parents and children may increase the potential for irritability and conflict. Young people may have disagreements with their parents over where they wish to spend Christmas. Separated couples may argue over who their children will be with at Christmas. Disagreements may occur over who’s house people will gather at for Christmas. Family members may re-engage in conflict over an ongoing or unresolved past issue. Siblings may bicker due to spending too much holiday time at home together. Media portrayals of the perfect Christmas day which encourage women in particular to spend much time in preparing and delivering the Christmas lunch or dinner, and that encourage gift buying and giving that is beyond the family budget.
What is the impact of family stress at Christmas?
During 2014 contacts to counsellors at Kids Helpline by children and young people showed that 19% of all counselling issues raised were associated with family relationships, including family conflict and other family problems. Furthermore, about 10% of requests for assistance from parents contacting Parentline during this period related to parent-child relationships. Family conflict creates an unpleasant environment, but it can also lead to more severe and ongoing problems. Children and young people exposed to family conflict may become distressed and if the conflict is particularly chronic and intense, it may contribute to the development of mental health problems such as anxiety.
How can the stresses and tension of Christmas be managed?
- Think about the previous year’s Christmas and what you learnt from that experience, and come up with constructive workable changes for this year. Talk to your children about what they would like to do at Christmas and get them involved in planning how to spend that time together. Leave plenty of time for organising by starting early.
- Keep things simple and if you are feeling the pressure of organising and preparing for Christmas talk to your family and get them to help. The less stressed you are as a parent, the less irritable others will feel.
- Be mindful of media portrayals of the “perfect” Christmas that may push you into the stress and tension of getting the gifts “right”, preparing a huge feast, or spending so much time in “doing” that you have little to no time to spend with your child or young person. If you can involve them in making Christmas a joint, celebratory, family event it will be more memorable and less pressured for all involved .
- Don’t spend more than you can afford to at Christmastime in order to avoid over spending and to minimise stress. Discuss your gift budget with your children and do not over promise to provide expensive gifts. Discuss the possibility of making gifts and help your children or young person create, decorate and wrap them. Family members often treasure homemade gifts (such as sweets, bottled fruits, a painted picture, handmade cards or bookmarks, or a recorded message or video clip for family members far away).
- Encourage all family members including children and young people to be tolerant of other people at Christmas time. Arrange the space so that people can find a quiet area to have time alone when they need it, and to be able to unwind if they feel overwhelmed by family gatherings.
- Use good communication skills to clearly explain your own needs and feelings as well as being able to understand the needs and feelings of your child or young person. Listen to their concerns in the lead up to Christmas. People who feel heard are more likely to be accommodating of others.
- If you will be driving a long distance with children during the Christmas holidays, provide them with plenty of things to keep them occupied as boredom can lead to arguments. Prepare some car games for the trip as they can be a great way to have fun together.
- To reduce the amount of work required on Christmas day have a buffet where everyone helps themselves to the food. Ask people to help you prepare the food, and let them know you appreciate their assistance. Work out in advance which jobs various people can assist with.
- Limit the availability, timing and amount of alcohol during Christmas or holiday events if you know it contributes to heightened sadness, disagreement or conflict.
- If there are unresolved conflicts in the family, make an agreement with all parties concerned to put the conflict on hold during the festive season out of respect for all involved.
- Showing children and young people how to appropriately avoid and handle family tension and stress is important as it provides them with a good example of how to handle their own issues with family and friends.
- If you are having financial difficulties seek help from community agencies who offer food and gifts. If gift giving has become too expensive or onerous decide as a family to donate an amount to a charity instead of gift buying, which will shift your focus onto others and how much they will appreciate your donation.
- For step-families or blended families:
- Newly formed families take time to become comfortable with each other. Keep this in mind when making preparations. Children in blended families may feel worried about hurting the feelings of their other parents and may feel uncomfortable with leaving them alone or “left out”. Think about the option of staggered Christmas celebrations so that children can spend time with both parents over the holidays.
- Try to incorporate the traditions of each of the former families into your current family as well as trying to create new traditions that everyone will enjoy. Discuss this with your child or young person, seeking agreement on what Christmas activities they would like to have carried over from their previous family into the new family. Ask the children to help design a “new” family Christmas ritual explaining that rituals are something only your family does which gives you a sense of belonging. It gives a message to the world that ‘this is who we are’.
- Some young people may experience feelings of loss for their former family. Support your child or young person to find ways to overcome these feelings. For more information of Christmas and grief.
- Remember that choosing Christmas as a time for sorting out differences between separated partners is not supportive of a pleasant happy time for your child or young person, and could be setting up Christmas as a stressful time, perhaps for years to come.