It's about this time of the year that the most common conversation throughout the day with my clients is around Christmas, and how stressful they find Christmas day. I've already heard about the travel plans on the day from one family to the next, and of course, the family dynamics that come out to play. This is something I've contemplated for a few years, until it dawned on me recently that a lot of the problems we face on Christmas day come down to old patterns of behaviour in the family that are playing out again. Like a skipping record, we keep experiencing the same problems each year. Let me give you an example - have you been at Christmas lunch with your family, and felt like your mother was suddenly giving you life advice, despite the fact that you have lived out of home for several years, and actually have your own family? Or perhaps your brother is driving you nuts, as he fills the family in on his exploits for the year, because you can't get a word in edgewise? Or you suddenly feel like a kid again and your parents are talking down to you. If this sounds familiar, read on as I have a few tips to help you through the festive period.
Growing up in your family, you no doubt developed unspoken family rules and behaviours. These rules and behaviours served a purpose growing up - getting your brother into trouble so you can watch the television show you wanted to watch; being more compliant than your siblings so you get more time with a parent or whatever. Your parents have their own unspoken rules and behaviours - how they deem themselves to be good parents, or connecting with their children. All these behaviours work, for better or worse, while the family is growing up. Some rules and behaviours have to be adjusted as kids get older (and parents are flexible enough to allow change), but by and large they remain the same. Psychologists call these unspoken rules and behaviours "relational patterns". Which basically means, 'when my sibling does [X] I respond with [Y]'. For example, when my brother gets a compliment from our mother about his report card, I change the topic to something I am competent at to get attention from our mother. Now this is done unconsciously, no-one actually has that type of conscious thought, but it gives an example of how relational patterns play out and the family dynamics that arise from them.
Now, of course, you are an adult, perhaps with your own family, and you are returning to the family home (or at least in company with your family) for Christmas, and all of a sudden you are feeling angry at your sister, perhaps even arguing with her. Or your dad is giving you a lecture about what you should be doing with your money to be financially sound for the future. You might be feeling attacked by your family, so you go on the defensive. The family is back together and the old relational patterns have suddenly resurfaced. The problem is, those relational patterns no longer apply or work. Couple the relational patterns with stress of Christmas - the pressure of the stereotype of happy families and the perfect day, finances, too much alcohol etc - and you have a recipe for disaster.
Tip #1: Who can you control?
You can't change the way that your family is behaving. Just because you've become aware of these old relational patterns, doesn't mean your family has. You can, however, change how you respond to these behaviours when you see them. Now that you know your family is falling into old relational patterns, you no longer have to respond in the same way. In fact, now that you know that these are old relational patterns, they even become a little amusing, rather than upsetting. An interesting thing happens when you don't respond in the predicted way your family member expects you to behave - they will initially try to increase their behaviour, and eventually it will stop. It is also possible, that new, more helpful relational patterns will start to emerge.
Tip #2: What is important?
We often get caught up in the hysteria of Christmas and how we should or should not behave. Here's my tip - take a step back and think about what is important? Is it important to you that you spend time with your loved ones? If yes, does it matter that Aunty Carol is always late? (Maybe she has her own old relational patterns playing out with your parents). When Aunty Carol arrives, rather than groan at her with a "finally", perhaps try "I'm so glad you made it" and see how she responds. Does the day have to be perfect? Or is important to be together, to share a moment? If you take this approach, you might find Christmas day to be less stressful.
Tip #3: Take your time
If you've got young kids, you'll know that Christmas is an exciting time. They've been wishing for weeks for presents and the excitement that goes with opening a Christmas present can be overwhelming. My advice here is: give the kids a chance to play with their toys. If you are scheduling visiting different families on the same day, allow time for the kids to simply play with their toys. They will appreciate it, and you will too as they will cope with the transition better.
Do you need more help? Did you find that despite trying these tips, Christmas was too stressful bringing up more painful experiences than good? Our psychologists at Grove Psychology are happy to help. Just click on the 'book now' button to speak with one of our experienced psychologists.