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Christmas, not Stressmas: 7 Festive Dilemmas and How to Keep the Peace

Family relationship experts, Relate, ponder some common Christmas dilemmas and offer their solutions for a cool Yule. New Year is the busiest time of year for Relate as couples and families face the fallout from an unhappy or exhausting holiday season. Add in some gloomy January weather and it’s no surprise that our phones are ringing off the hook with people wanting counselling


The pressure on us all to enjoy the ‘perfect’ Christmas often creates unrealistic expectations. This can be especially true for those of us with blended families, difficult relatives or for anyone who finds themselves alone at this time of year. We take a look at seven common Christmas dilemmas and offer some suggestions to make sure the festivities go with a swing, not a bang…

1. How do I look after myself and carve out a bit of me-time?

Relate family counsellor, Barbara Bloomfield, says now is not too late to sit down with your family and discuss how you want the holiday to go. “The relaxed Christmas is the one where everyone feels their wishes have been heard. And after listening to each person, divide up the domestic tasks. Children appreciate having a role and responsibility, even if it’s peeling sprouts.”

Agree with your partner some separate and together time, if you can. Arguments often happen because one partner has taken on too much and feels the other is not pulling their weight. Advance planning will help to share out the tasks fairly and provide a plan for everyone to follow.

2. I usually end up frazzled and red in the face. What am I doing wrong?

Maybe you’re taking too much responsibility and seeing yourself as the only one who can do things properly? One little tip when you feel over-burdened is to literally push back your chair by six inches, take a deep breath, and reflect on how it feels to be that little bit further back.

Relate counsellor, Mary Everett, says children can get easily bored over the holidays because they don’t feel involved and the long holiday gets them out of routine. “Give them a dish to make in advance, such as stuffing or mince pies, and then extend the ‘bring a dish’ to everyone who’s coming. When Christmas dinner is bring a plate, you’re sharing out the work and enjoying auntie’s perfect roast potatoes.”

If you’re hosting, you don’t need to do all the cooking. Arrange in advance for other relatives to bring ingredients and take over cooking a meal while you put your feet up for a few hours. Older children can also be enlisted to take relatives out for a walk or a coffee, a good chance for them to bond and give you a break.

3. My ex-partner is tricky and makes things difficult. What can I do?

Unfortunately, old wounds tend to open up at Christmas time and civilised forward planning is the best way to get around any painful memories. When communicating with ex-partners, polite, reasonable, and trustworthy is the order of the day if you want things to stay calm.

“Put your children and step children’s needs first,” says Barbara. “Make sure they are all treated even-handedly and fairly in terms of gifts, and that all are equally welcomed. Try to stick to nap times and bed times, within reason.”

Parents can find themselves driving all over the country to pick up and drop off children. Is there a better way? Perhaps you could arrange to meet half way in a neutral place.

How to make arrangements for special occasions

How can I prevent my negative feelings for my ex from affecting my relationship with my children? 

How to make Christmas as enjoyable as possible

4. My children are obsessed by expensive presents I can’t afford. How do I avoid disappointing them?

This is a tricky one because we all want to do our best to bring a smile to our children’s faces. Mary says: “Work out how much you can afford and stick to it. Perhaps you can share the cost of a big item with relatives? Or, alternatively, explain to the kids that money is tight this year and manage their expectations. They may be disappointed in the short term, but in the longer term they are learning about real life.”

There is no law that says you have to consume at Christmas. You could decide to set a £5 limit on gifts and make the day about traditions and memories. Borrow a couple of fun games from a friend and have a games afternoon, or enlist your children in creating a Christmas quiz for the whole gang. Handmade gifts are always welcome and don’t cost very much, while showing that you’ve put time and effort into a gift.

5. So what can I say when long-distance relatives announce they are coming to stay with us for a week between Christmas Eve and New Year?

Have you heard the joke that Christmas relatives are like fish; after three days they start to “go off!”?

“Take into account the views of the whole family and present a united front,” advises Barbara. “You may be delighted to welcome these guests for a couple of nights but feel that a week is too long. Most family visits go best when everyone has ‘defendable space’ which means time to be together and time to shut yourself in your bedroom for a break.”

Honesty is probably the best policy: if you grin and bear it, the likelihood is that the same gang will want to come again next year. And every year it becomes harder to say no.

6. I’m dreading Christmas because I’ll be on my own this year. How can I get through it?

This can be a painful time of year for those who have lost a partner or have split up or been separated from their children. In fact, Relate’s new report with eharmony, Being Single in Britain Today found that one in 10 single people dread being single during the festive period and a similar number feel upset and stressed. Plus, of those who feel blue about being single at Christmas, 33% admit that being surrounded by family and friends in happy relationships is especially difficult at this time.

“This is the time to reach out to friends and make some tentative plans to meet up,” says Mary. “Your friends will understand if you are not the life and soul, but it’s important to have someone you can call on. There are lots of ways to meet other people who might be on their own. Maybe this is the year to be brave and try making a festive date?”

7. I find Christmas to be boring and samey: too much TV and over-indulging.  How can I liven things up?

“What are your Christmas traditions? Have a think about how you celebrated with your family when you were young. Maybe it’s time to introduce some new traditions and some new meaning into the holiday?” suggests Barbara.

For some, this might be about having neighbours round or inviting someone to join you for a meal. For others, Christmas is a fine time to be mindful and celebrate all that you have and all the people you love. How about writing a special message or card with loving words to each family member?

Instead of asking guests politely, “what do you do?” try asking them “what do you love doing?” You will get a much more interesting reply….


About the author

For more information about Relate’s digital and face-to-face services including couples counselling, individual counselling and mediation, visit  

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