Christmas brings all sorts of feelings for people, a lovely sense of warmth and anticipation, nostalgia triggered by the special Christmassy smells, festive music or perhaps the seasonal weather. Maybe some other, less welcome feelings too though, pressure and anxiety, isolation or a sense of dissatisfaction? If this is you then you may be surprised to know that you are not the only one.

Counsellors know what a difficult time Christmas can be for many people. Thrown together in a claustrophobic fug of central heating and alcohol, it’s not surprising that there is tension. Mums in particular can feel resentful and taken for granted as they sweat over the turkey, whilst everyone else gets merry in the other room. Dads, not used to so much time at home with the kids can feel restless and irritated. Children can become especially challenging, getting bored or over stimulated, out of their routines, and buzzing with sugar! Relatives make demands and it feels difficult to say ‘no’.

Sadly Christmas and New Year see a peak in the rates of divorce and suicide as painful feelings become overwhelming. It can be particularly difficult to make sense of such feelings when we are part of a loving family. Surely we should be happily, enjoying this special time with our loved ones like everyone else? The truth is that everyone goes through times when life seems difficult and for some Christmas can actually make it worse. Christmas is a lonely time for many, not just those who are alone, but those living together in families as well.

Christmas can trigger specific painful memories from the past. Maybe a loss or bereavement that hasn’t been resolved, or childhood trauma that is somehow linked with this time of year. It is at times of stress, such as Christmas, that difficult feelings pop up unexpectedly. No matter how hard we try to ignore them by keeping busy, thinking positively or pushing them away, troublesome feelings from the past can continue to spoil the present.

At Christmas the focus is on the family, but it’s a pretty narrow idea of family, as nowadays families are not the traditional nuclear shape. Our modern family structures just don’t fit the traditional version of Mum, Dad and kids all under one roof. It is common for some children to spend half of Christmas day with one parent and half with another. Negotiating these arrangements can bring feelings of anger and powerful memories from your own childhood Christmas.

The truth is that the reality of Christmas can feel very different from the fantasy. It’s the same with parenting, whilst we love our children dearly, the reality of parenthood can feel very different to what we imagined it would be. Many Mums and Dads are struggling to come to terms with the messy reality of parenthood, it isn’t always easy. Trying to make our Christmas or our family perfect is a recipe for stress, because it’s bound to be unachievable. So we wrestle with the tree, max out on the credit cards and shout at the children when they play with the decorations. Christmas is all for the children– right? Well maybe this year Mums and Dads need to forget about the ‘perfect’ Christmas and think about the Christmas they really want.

Top tips for a stress free family Christmas:

  • Daylight and exercise is vital to mental health, so get outside –everyday.
  • Enjoy food and alcohol but try to bring some balance. Ask yourself ‘is this really what I want?’
  • Give the gift of time and attention to the children. Leave the housework and listen to them, make things, play together. Or just snuggle up and talk about Christmas when you were little.
  • Give yourself attention too. Have fun and relax. Arrange to spend time with your partner and supportive friends (not just family!)
  • Traditions are lovely, but if they aren’t working for your family, make up some new ones.
  • Christmas and New Year are times of reflection and renewal. If difficult feelings are spoiling family life, try and talk to someone, or perhaps consider a counsellor for further support.

First published 7th December, 2011