As a parent this is the time of year we find ourselves walking the crazy line between seasonal joy and a collapsing into an exhausted heap of festive deadlines and family feuds. As the carols blast through the shopping malls we dance between attempting to recreate the dreamy Christmas of a Briscoes ad and pushing back on the hype that would have us bark at the kids, snap at our partner and max out the credit card.
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- Our Christmas playlist: It’s the most wonderful time of the year
- Parenting on the same page (yeah, right)
This time of year can be brutal on family and relationships. It might be something to do with the excessive marketing of Christmas cheer but there is nothing quite like the Christmas season to apply pressure to those already ouchy relationships. Just as we crash through the finishing line for the end of the year we need to find the energy to haul ourselves up and over the Christmas rush.
As well as the rush sometimes our heart can feel heavier at this time of year. Whether it’s financial stress, the struggle with single parenting, unspeakable grief of love lost, disappointment, conflict, exhaustion or just miserable loneliness. For many of us, this side of Christmas feels less like a garden banquet and way more like an episode of Wipeout.
As a kid I remember waiting the whole year just to get to Christmas. The smell of the freshly-cut grass meant holidays were looming. When school was out, the tinsel tree would go up, complete with candy canes, and miraculously the kitchen would churn out endless rounds of delicious Christmas treats.
On Christmas Day we would head to the grandparents in the family station wagon, locked and loaded, kids packed tightly in the back seat, dog dribbling down the back of our necks, Mum and Dad bickering from the front seats about whose fault it was that we were running late. I recall the year when my brother lost his grip on the Christmas pav and it needed to be hosed off the car mats on arrival. Funny to reflect on now – not so funny at the time.
As a child what I didn’t see was that Christmas was held together by a bunch of fairly exhausted adults who had sucked up their differences to sweat it out in a hot kitchen and create this magical thing called family. It’s only now, as an adult, that I realise that back then I was learning a lot more than how to open presents and eat turkey. I had front row seats watching the adults in my life work together, accept each other and simply get on with getting on.
So with the complexity of in-laws, out-laws, exes, siblings, stepkids, cousins, and partners, how do we do this thing called family at Christmas? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Run with the family you have
We all need a tribe to belong to. So if family is scarce, find a crew to hang with for Christmas because we all need to feel like we matter to someone. When I was a teenager I was dead jealous of my friends’ awesome families who were constantly joking around and seemed to genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Although we might not have the family of our dreams, we have the family we have and learning to get along with them as best we can teaches kids about relationships.
Every family hangs together in its own very unique way. While one side of the family might like a full sit-down hot Christmas dinner, the other side of the family might like some beers around the barbeque. Learning to accept the differences instead of trying to fix or change them is a refreshing way to get on with getting on.
2. Have some good questions ready to go
Every person has got at least one thing to like even if it takes a while to find it. Within every family there is a collection of diverse personalities, interests and opinions. This diversity is the ideal environment for both learning and conflict. Stubbornly choosing to focus on the positive qualities of family members, instead of the opposite, creates some light relief for the relationship and a chance to reconnect in a positive way. If you struggle with a grumpy uncle or an opinionated aunt, try indulging them with a couple of good questions to get the ball rolling, like –
- What was your favourite part of Christmas as a kid?
- Have you seen a good movie lately?
- If you won a family holiday where would you go?
- Describe your life 10 years from now.
- If you were given $5000 to help others how would you spend it?
Soon enough the conversation will flow and you might even surprise yourself to have enjoyed it.
3. Resist the urge to take offence
We all walk around with our very own way of seeing the world. When family members have drastically different views to our own the relationship can get a bit crunchy. The temptation to avoid someone with a different opinion is pretty strong. Yet if we can hang in there and explore their world, we will often find it helps to understand where they are coming from.
Resisting the urge to take offence can really feel like standing against the tide. Responding with a comment like, “That is interesting. I had never thought of it like that” goes a long way to bridge the divide and keep the relationship in good shape. When our kids see that we can laugh with our father-in-law even though we wildly disagree, they get their own front row seats to tolerance.
4. If in doubt, pick up the tea towel
If you are wincing at the thought of sitting next to your brother-in-law for extended chats about the economy, then throw yourself a lifeline and head to the kitchen to help out. No one is going to complain when you offer to wash the gravy dish or stack the dishwasher. It gives you the space to indulge your introversion and catch your breath for the next round of small talk.
Through the eyes of kids, Christmas is a magical time of the year. But as an adult, it can feel like a hotbed of logistical and relational challenges. Bravely embracing our own family or one that resembles it with curiosity and kindness, despite their limitations, goes a long way towards raising more tolerant and accepting kids. Who knows, we might even enjoy ourselves along the way.
Book a session with a Family Coach
Sometimes family life is way more challenging than we had ever imagined. We would like it to be a lot more enjoyable, if only we knew how. Family coaching is designed to meet you where you are at, whatever stage you are at on your parenting and relationship journey. We want to be on the journey with you. To find out more and to book a session, click here.