Family Therapy UK

Surviving Christmas as a Family


Christmas is associated with having a good time. For Christians it is a celebration of the birth of Christ, but for most, this association has been largely lost. The popular image of Christmas is of happy families, a warm glow inside and a relaxed, contented time. Christmas is punctuated with generous meals, social gatherings, entertainment and an openness and generosity not so apparent at other times of the year. These images are presented to us through advertising, television and through long held cultural expectations. Whatever we think of Christmas, it can be a time of stress and reflection about our own lives and our relationships with others.

What can go wrong at Christmas?

Having unrealistically high expectations can lead to disappointment and a sense of failure. The pressure is on to have fun - to socialise, entertain and be generous. It is hard to live up to all these expectations, and it is easy to end up feeling stressed and anxious. Like most potentially stressful situations, with a little planning and preparation, you can avoid some of the more unpleasant aspects.


In modern life the traditional view of Christmas as the time when all the family get together is complicated by the breakdown of many families through divorce. Where there has been divorce or separation, there can be difficulties in deciding who the children should be with over Christmas. There is enormous potential for pain when arrangements are not fairly and properly made. It helps if divorced/separated parents make arrangements for Christmas well beforehand. This way, the children and adults involved, can plan for where they will be. Keep your focus on the needs of the children. Older children will want some say in what happens over Christmas. Remember that if you have the children with you, it can be a time of sadness for their other parent. Try to be fair in your dealings with the other parent and be open to some flexibility if it is required. If you have the children over Christmas, encourage them to telephone their other parent.

Anniversaries such as Christmas can bring memories flooding back about absent parents and other Christmas times when all the family have been together. For children who have lost contact with a parent, Christmas can bring about feelings of loss and upset. If you suspect this may be the case, raise these issues and try to talk about them in an open, supportive and uncritical way. Appreciate that whatever your experience with the missing parent, for a child, their relationship is different.

Where there has been death in a family, Christmas like other special occasions, can bring back painful reminders for children and adults. Be open to such feelings and discuss them if your children raise them with you. As a parent, you have to judge these things for yourself, but it is often better to bring the memory or loss into the open rather than hide it away.


There is pressure to buy expensive presents at Christmas. Try not to be competitive - it should not be a competition to see who buys the biggest and best. Try to stick to a budget. It is not very sensible to buy expensive presents if you spend six months having to pay off your credit card bill, or get into debt by taking out a loan. Younger children will appreciate small. carefully chosen presents and these not coast a fortune. For older children it is difficult not to buy the latest games console or fashion doll, but if you do and your money is tight, explain that you can only afford the one present. Children understand about such things if you talk to them. Express how much you would like to buy them what they want whilst being honest about your financial situation.

Many families get into debt over Christmas. By avoiding debt, you will be able to do more with them for the rest of the year - not just Christmas. Maybe they can choose one present they really want, or you could combine the cost of a present with a relative. In this way, they may not get lots of presents, but they will get the present they really want. It is your relationship with your child that is of primary importance, not how many presents you buy them.

Buying presents throughout the year can help spread the cost and you may pick up a bargain in the sales. If you make a list of who you need to buy for, you can buy presents throughout year, not just at Christmas time when prices are highest.

Some people choose to buy presents for their immediate family only and explain to relatives and friends that this is how they prefer it. Don't feel embarrassed or ashamed about doing this, but do be clear that this is what you want.


There are increased pressures to socialise at Christmas. For some this is a pleasure, for others, a dread. There are some people who have no one to socialise with, for them, there is no choice. If you are in this position and are upset about it, there are some suggestions below.

If you don't like socialising and want to avoid the office party or other social gatherings, try not to be pressured into attending them. Prepare yourself with a reason when asked. The reason can be a polite and honest "It's not my thing" or a made-up excuse such as you are already going out on that night etc. Don't feel you have to attend.

If you feel you really have to attend some functions, even if you don't feel like going, you can attend for a short time by arriving late or by going home at a predetermined time. You can do this by pre-booking a taxi or asking a relative or friend to pick you up at a set time.

Whether you like parties or not, if you do attend them, or other social gatherings, be careful about how much alcohol you consume, particularly if driving yourself or others about.

Surviving Christmas with the family

Christmas day can be very stressful - particularly if you are responsible for preparing the Christmas food or making other arrangements. Here are some suggestions for making Christmas day a little easier:

• Prepare food beforehand when you can. Don't be embarrassed about buying ready-prepared food such as roast potatoes, prepared vegetables or cakes etc. If cooking is not your thing, you could go out for Christmas lunch to a pub or restaurant. A cheaper alternative is to be open to invitations to someone else's house.

• Make sure you have enough food and drink available. There is nothing worse than running out of milk or wine when most of the shops are closed.

• Share the responsibilities. You can do this by discussing who will do what before the day arrives.

• Don't feel you have to invite people over you don't like. Although you may find this difficult to do - remember that if you don't enjoy their company - they are probably not enjoying yours. If you must see them, find another, less stressful time.

• Try to remember that major social events such as Christmas day and New Year rarely run absolutely smoothly. Try to stay relaxed and keep a sense of proportion about things. Don't expect perfection - good enough will do.

• Be realistic about relationships. If things have been strained recently, don't expect Christmas Day or a New Years party to fix everything. Don't expect a perfect day, but make an effort to be more open and helpful with each other.

• Expect children to be difficult at times. Younger children can become over-excited, over-tired and crotchety. Teenagers may be more interested in seeing their friends, spending time on the Internet or in their bedrooms than joining in family events - even at Christmas.

• Expect a mess and a few spilled drinks.

• Have a few games to play. Games that involve a number of people and involve some movement and activity, such as charades are often popular with children and adults.

• Try not to be too disappointed if your present is not exactly what you wanted.

• Don't feel it is your sole responsibility to deal with everything. If you are busy, delegate things out to your partner, relative, friends and even the children.

• Try to take a break from time to time and relax. If you get flustered or upset, go outside and take in some fresh air.

• Make some time for the children and enjoy the experience of Christmas with them too.

Loneliness and Depression

Christmas can be a very lonely time. The so-called, season of goodwill and cheer can throw into sharp relief how socially isolated you may be. Christmas time, with its emphasis on family ties, can remind you of family problems and difficulties. It can be a time of reflection, sometimes happy, sometimes sad. Memories of deceased loved ones, friends, or family members who you have lost contact with can come flooding back. The expectation that you should be having a good time, when you are actually feeling miserable, creates emotional pain. For this reason some people can become depressed and unhappy at Christmas.

Christmas offers an opportunity to reconnect with people as well. It can be a time to contact someone again either in person, or by sending a greeting card. If there has been a family breakdown, it offers a chance to make amends.

So what can you do if you are lonely or depressed at Christmas?

If you expect to be depressed or unhappy at Christmas you can prepare yourself. Some people actually just don't like Christmas - you may not be depressed about it at all but struggle to think what to do instead. Some of the suggestions below may help.

• Have an alternative Christmas - go on a holiday, or if you can, volunteer to work over Christmas.

• Try not to be alone. If you have no friends or relatives to be with, you could consider doing some voluntary work that will put you in touch with other people over the Christmas period.

• If you are connected to the Internet - there will be chat rooms open where you can talk to other people.

• Get out of the house - go for a walk or a drive. A change of scenery may be just the thing. Exercise and fresh air will help you feel less depressed.

• Prepare some things to do. Maybe watch a favourite video or take out the latest film. Buy a book especially to read on Christmas Eve and Christmas day - or another time during the Christmas/New Year period. Get in some new music - anything to take your mind off things.

• If you feel suicidal or very lonely or upset, use the Christmas care lines run by various charities (such as the Samaritans - 08457 90 90 90) often advertised on TV over Christmas. If you don't know the number you want ring the operator to put you in touch with a care line.

• Try not to drink too much if you are on your own, and be careful about the use of drugs.

The Christmas period can be enjoyable and made less stressful with some planning and keeping your expectations realistic and achievable.


Dennis Neill

Family Therapist

Family Therapy UK

1st May 2008

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