Are you looking forward to Christmas day or do you start feeling stressed long before it comes around? 90% of my clients find some aspect of Christmas difficult. Things we can’t control increase our stress – additional pressures from the end of the work year, the end of the school year and living in a pandemic. Another big worry parents tell me about is how their children will behave on the actual day and about the comments family members might make.

Parents can do a lot to help set things up in advance to make it more likely things go more smoothly on Christmas day

Take stock of where you are with relationships. If they are under strain during the year then they are not going to suddenly improve at Christmas. So a long term aim would be to improve the quality of your relationships throughout the year to have a better time at Christmas. This is all about communicating in ways which strengthen relationships. One important way of talking to our relatives is to use “I” statements. “I feel appreciated ….” and “I feel supported…” are some of the ways to help communicate our needs, without causing defensiveness. It’s much like the process we need to follow when getting a united front with our partner.

Work out a realistic expectation for you and your children on Christmas day. Does it work for you to go and see every single relative under the sun if it makes your pre-schoolers/tweens/teens tired and ratty? Is it fair to expect mum to do all the running around and get hot and sweaty in the kitchen while everyone else sits on their behind? What changes need to happen if what you are currently doing is not serving your family? Stressed parents equals stressed children. Increasing our awareness of how we feel helps to set a more realistic expectation for a Christmas that works for us. When you have decided what you want to do it’s important to communicate clearly with the rest of your family. Start early so they can process the information. Go ahead and give them a ring to get the ball rolling.

We can get ready to navigate the immediate stress that crops us and any specific worries about what will be said about our child’s behaviour

Parents tell me that they hate being judged and that it’s even harder when their children are judged. Sometimes our children don’t behave in ways that they are expected. There is a lot of excitement, lack of sleep and typical routine goes out the window at this time of year. A common concern is that children are not grateful for the gifts they receive. For help with concerns on gratitude read this

Maybe you have a child who doesn’t like to eat certain food or give hugs. These concerns can be helped when we get in early and have a talk to relatives in advance. It’s much easier to set expectations and get support on what you think might be an issue for your child when you bring it up earlier.

Raise some awareness about how you want to respect children’s autonomy by making these things clear:

We don’t make a child eat what is put in front of them if they don’t want to

We don’t force a child to sit on grandma’s lap, give hugs or to have a photo taken when they don’t feel like it

Using force with an anxious child will increase their resistance so here’s what works instead

To keep relationships intact set clear boundaries and know what you can do about comments or advice about our child’s behaviour

Unwanted advice can sound like this:“I wouldn’t let my children do that…” or even “That boy needs a good smack.” While it might not feel like it, this sort of comment generally comes from a good place. The person saying this wants to correct the behaviour and to spare us from it being repeated. From our perspective it can sound unhelpful and even unkind to our child. Instead of being defensive and reacting we have a choice. We can choose to say something that will not add to the tension and keep the communication channels open. Here are some forms of words which can be adapted to suit:

“Thanks for your thoughts on that issue with Jack, we’ve had a number of discussions about how we want to handle that. It sounds a bit different from what you’ve suggested. For now, we would appreciate you support while we work through it in our way.”

“That’s an interesting perspective. What we know about Sarah is that when we do x,y and z we end up with forcing an apology. We don’t like to pressure her to say sorry when she isn’t ready and it’s better for her to do it on her own when it’s a true sorry.”

“I’m happy to talk to you some more about this at another time, my feeling is that this isn’t the right time or place to have that discussion, especially with the children being here.”

a family celebrating christmas dinner
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on

Whatever you do on Christmas day you deserve to have the Christmas that is right for you and your family. Doing what we think other people want or putting their needs above our own isn’t good for us or for our children. It will cause resentment in the long run. It is possible to keep relationships strong by using these skills to help communicate our needs with empathy and clear boundaries. Wishing you all a very happy Christmas however that looks for you and your family.

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