In families, Christmas can be a time of joy. However, it can also be a stressful and difficult time for a number of reasons, including:
- Time pressures and financial pressures
- Family tension
- Being part of a step family or blended family
- Reflecting about the year past
Feelings at Christmas can be particularly raw for families that have experienced separation or divorce, or a recent loss. Family members will often remember happier times in the past and/or keenly feel the absence of loved ones.
Furthermore, Christmas has the potential for great disappointment and loneliness. People may end up alone or upset at Christmas because someone they were looking forward to seeing changes their plans or cannot make it at the last minute. Also, many Australians have close family members overseas and their absence can be felt strongly at this time.
Christmas and the media
The media often presents Christmas as a picture of happy families enjoying each other's company while giving and receiving gifts. However, this is not the case for many families. The difference between this ‘ideal’ and reality can put pressure on families and lead to stress and feelings of tension as they prepare for Christmas.
It can help to remember that the media presents just one side of Christmas, and every family celebrates Christmas in their own way, with their own traditions and values.
What kids often call Kids Helpline about at Christmas
At Christmas time, Kids Helpline receives an increase in contact about a number of specific issues, compared with other times of the year, including:
- Family relationships
- Emotional/behavioural problems
Young people aged 15-18 years make the most contact to Kids Helpline over Christmas, which is consistent with other times of the year. There is also a significant increase in contacts from the 19-25 year old age group.
Below are some examples of the types of difficulties children and young people contact Kids Helpline about at Christmas:
- Eleven year-old girl called very upset because her grandfather has been diagnosed with cancer. She was also concerned because the family is running out of money and had to borrow from her aunt so that they can afford to celebrate Christmas.
- Seventeen year-old female phoned Kids Helpline to talk about some problems she is having with family members. Caller is in a lesbian relationship and her extended family do not approve. She has been told that she is not invited to the Christmas celebrations.
- Nine year-old boy said his parents separated some time ago. He and his sisters live with their mum, while their dad lives interstate. They only get to see him at Christmas and the caller wishes he could see him more often.
Tips to help manage Christmas
One of the good things about Christmas is that it happens at the same time each year. So take some time to prepare, and have a look at the tips below that have helped other parents manage different aspects of Christmas. Remember, if you need to talk to someone about your family, you can always call Parentline on the phone numbers listed at the bottom of this page.
Many families find it hard when they get together at Christmas because they don't see each other much at other times. Children can also find it difficult if they have to fit into two different family set-ups and be with step brothers and sisters they are less familiar with, or be part of a newly ‘blended’ family. Things that can help ease family tension include:
- If you have a partner, trying to sit down a week before Christmas Day to work out a way to support each other on the day
- Aiming to have early conversations about who children will be with on Christmas and Boxing Day so that planning is not rushed
- Involving all family members when planning how you want to spend time together. Discuss what people want to do and try to include some of what everyone has put forward
- Encouraging children to talk openly about their concerns, listening respectfully and being willing to share your own thoughts. Many children in separated families feel worried about how to please both parents at Christmas and they may feel anxious if they cannot be with one parent. Some young children also worry about the parent who will be on their own
- Taking time to remember and talk about close family members who may have died during the year or recently
- Taking time to settle children in when they are part of a new family structure. This can take extra time
- Keeping expectations realistic - if your family usually argues when they get together, then accept that this will probably happen at Christmas as well
- Planning a short time together rather than an extended period of time which can become awkward
- Playing a game of cricket or doing something fun in the yard or down at the park - this can help to pass the time happily together and diffuse intensity
- Taking rests or having ‘time out’ if needed.
Christmas advertising often focuses on gifts and finding something ‘special’ for someone, as well as having plenty of Christmas food available. This can be difficult to achieve for many reasons, and can create feelings of guilt or inadequacy. Often parents feel obliged to spend more than they can afford and this can lead to financial problems later on. Things that can help ease financial strain include:
- Making a budget so you know how much you have to spend. Some people find it helpful to save money for Christmas throughout the year
- Trying to stick to your budget by planning what you want to buy before you go shopping. This way you will be less inclined to make impulse buys, which you may regret later
- Starting your Christmas shopping early. It can get very hectic close to Christmas and although it can be fun to buy one or two gifts at the last minute, it can also lead to not thinking clearly about what you can afford and want to buy
- Avoiding promising your children gifts beyond your budget. When expectations are not met it can be disappointing, especially for children
- Asking for help and ideas about planning and budgeting from a financial advisor - Centrelink also offers free advice to people on benefits
- Considering making some family gifts or helping your children to make some. This can save money and many children love to make special presents for those they love. The person who receives them also often feels especially pleased that someone has taken the time to make a gift. Ideas include:
- making food or sweets
- painting a picture or making a frame
- making cards or bookmarks
- recording a message to send to relatives far away
Eating and drinking:
Food and drink are often a big part of Christmas get togethers and preparation can be quite stressful. In addition, increased consumption of alcohol and food can leave people feeling unwell or with heightened emotions. How can you make things easier?
- Involve all family members in helping to prepare food, once they are old enough
- Ask people to help you with a specific job on the day - let them know that you are happy to have help in the kitchen and how they can help
- Consider having a buffet where each family member contributes a different dish
- Prepare some food beforehand. You can prepare vegetables the day before or make some cakes or food that can be frozen and de-frosted
- Plan alcohol availability to minimise heightened anger or sadness, especially if it could lead to angry or violent behaviour
- Access help from community agencies who offer food and gifts to families in need if you have financial constraints
- Decide on a theme to help guide food and decoration preparation
Christmas on your own
When you know that you are going to be on your own at Christmas, take time to plan what you are going to do to avoid feeling lonely, isolated or bored. Some suggestions that people have found useful include:
- Contact one of the major charities and see if you can help on a ‘soup run’ or help to serve Christmas dinner at a homeless shelter
- Arrange to visit a nearby retirement home for a couple of hours to assist with serving food or to chat with elderly people so that they have someone to talk to and share memories with
- Ask your friends to see who else is available and would like to share Christmas lunch. When people get together who have no close family nearby it can make for an interesting and unusual time as you share local dishes and customs
- Take a walk in a favourite spot
- Go to the cinema - you may be able to catch a new film before it officially opens on Boxing Day. Check the schedule beforehand as many cinemas open at 4pm on Christmas Day
Finally, try to keep realistic expectations and remember that love, commitment and patience can help families to have a happy time at Christmas. Be sure to organise a treat for yourself, or have some quiet time alone. Others may be so busy having fun they forget to thank you, so remember to recognise and praise yourself!
Who can I contact for more information?
You may wish to contact your local parenting help service/s for further information.
Published: 2 December 2009
Updated: 22 November 2011