Complicated Families at Christmas Time........

When a family Christmas is complicated and not such a happy time….

The festive season can be one of the most stressful times of year for many families. It does not seem to matter if you are a two parent nuclear family, a lone parent, a non-resident parent, a widowed parent, a separated parent, a divorced parent, a step-parent or whatever…. It can get complicated as many of us know and many parents and grandparents can feel more lonely and isolated than at any other time of year. Families are complex entities at the best of times and Christmas can heighten under-lying tensions with in-laws and out-laws all wanting a piece of the action and we can all feel anxious and vulnerable when kids are involved.
When my two sons were small I separated from their father and we then co-parented to the best of our ability. My family are all in different countries and his family all in Ireland. The first Christmas after I moved out, the kids wanted the usual big “happy family” gathering and I simply could not join a big extended family “do” at the time, so, they were with me on Christmas Eve and their dad collected them for his week on Christmas Day. I headed to the hills alone to a friend’s log cabin with my favourite food, books, paints, walking boots and writing materials and decided to rest and retreat. I had time by myself and they had time with grandparents, cousins and others. I consciously decided to let go of expectations and simply be with the reality that was. I knew that it was my choice to be/jealous/angry/sad or not, and I decided to make the best of it! I had precious time for me which as it happened was exactly what I needed.
As the years went by I experimented with many things at Christmas which might be useful to share with you since it’s that time of year and this may be your first “complicated Christmas”; you might be alone, or alone with your kids, there may be new partners, new children, steps and halves or any permutations that might be relevant to you. These days any combinations are possible and you may be a high functioning co-parent with good mutual communication or you may be going through the courts with no possibility of reasonable contact. Whatever your circumstances ,  if you and your ex have kids then you need to act as adults  and the best Christmas present for them will be to minimize any unnecessary stress between the pair of you.
  1. PLAN AHEAD: Try to plan as far ahead as possible to avoid any last minute issues of availability or mis-understandings. It might help to make a time-table so that everyone knows what is going on and to email it to the households concerned in the hope of avoiding unnecessary conflict and emotional turmoil. Uncertainty breeds anxiety.You need to do what you can ahead of time so maybe start to plan at Halloween.  To ease tensions may mean thinking in years rather than weeks. For example you have your children on alternate Christmas Eves or Days. This way, you know well in advance what you can plan for your times off. It is far better if parents can decide this mutually rather than letting the courts decide which in my opinion is a last resort.

  1. BE FLEXIBLE: “You can please some of the people some of the time but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” So you might need to be flexible and re-consider some of your own expectations. What a difference a day makes….. or does it? We have an emotional relationship with Christmas …and would it really be a problem if you had your “Christmas Day” a few days earlier or made a special day another time??

  1. BE AWARE of LOYALTY and LOSS: due to separation/divorce etc.  Christmas time can heighten feelings of loss for children and they can feel disloyal when spending time with one or other parent. So as a parent (and hopefully one who can act like an adult!) it’s important to encourage your child to “go and have a good time” with your ex partner and family. This can release them from guilt and worry about you. If you have to spend time alone then it’s important that you schedule things to do for yourself when they are away…. Rest, see friends, go to the movies, do some voluntary work…. Whatever makes you feel good.  Do not sit and mope!! It’s not good for you or them.

  1. There is no such thing as a “perfect Christmas”… it’s a myth and it’s just one day out of 364 so don’t sweat the small stuff!

  1. Do what you can and accept the things that you cannot change…..Christmas Day should not be a day for confrontations if at all possible. Try to keep the peace just for today.

  1. Listen to your kids….. ask them what they want to do.  Never force them to spend time with someone they are not comfortable with. They have their reasons and may need protecting.

  1. If you live with your kids and your ex partner is unreliable or does not want to see them this can be very stressful but try to remain positive and see if there are other parents out there in similar situations and join forces with them. This can diffuse the situation. I had one Christmas where 17 people came with a crew of kids for a pot luck lunch. It was fantastic.

  1. The last thing you want to do is to create a Christmas full of conflict and tension for your kids. If you and your ex partner are high-functioning co-parents despite being separated you may choose to celebrate the day together. There are no wrongs and no rights when it comes to these decisions but explain to your kids that this is the plan and also make sure they know that it does not mean that you are reconciling

  1. Never try to compete with your ex partner over who gives the biggest/best present! My ex always gave big presents  so I gave small presents  like tools , pocket knives or creativity kits and then organised “fun” days full of adventure out in the hills or down by the river.  Presence is better than presents.

  1. When it comes to step parents, step grandparents and step children should be encouraged to give gifts to each other that feel appropriate to their relationship.
Whatever your particular circumstances it is important to remember that nothing stays the same and change is the only certainty. Your children will grow up and fly the nest and make their own Christmas plans in future. At this stage, I have had many different types of Christmas days some good and some not so .This is just the way things are and you are not alone. We are all human and Christmas can be painful and tiring There are thousands of parents struggling and all you can do is your best on the day, so keep taking those big deep breaths make the best of it.
Remember… there are 364 other days in the year to have fun!! 😊
Written by our in-house psychotherapist, Judith Ashton BA ITEC MFPhys IMTAW

What ever the make up of your family we the Buddy Bench wish you very Happy Holidays and look forward to hearing from many of you in 2107.

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