My clients, both couples and individuals, are all talking about Christmas in sessions right now. Whilst many of us hope for a joyous time, where conflicts and differences can be put aside, there is often a gap between our hopes and realities. And when the gap comes to the fore, it can create a great deal of disappointment. In this piece, I have highlighted some common problems families face at Christmas, and how these might be minimised for the good of everyone.

Our cultural expectations of Christmas are really powerful, and shape our hopes for the season. Music, films and TV tends to portray an idealised version of what coming together as an extended family should be like. There are plenty of exceptions to this of course, such as fights and arguments on Eastenders. But despite this, most of us have expectations that it’s “the most wonderful time of the year” with “chestnuts roasting on an open fire”, to draw on just two lines embedded into our minds. 

And yet, the difficulties many face with their couple and family relationships sadly can’t be magicked away or put on hold for any length of time. The intensity of being together, indoors at Christmas, off work and with fewer activities available can magnify existing tensions. This is why for couples, post-Christmas is the most common time of the year to decide to come to couple therapy.

Different beliefs about Christmas can also cause conflict – for example, those in the family who want to hold onto the ideal of a perfect Christmas versus those who are demonstrably cynical can soon bicker.

Adult children can often unconsciously regress when they return home and find themselves behaving as if they were still teenagers, and similarly parents can lose sight of how their adult child has matured and start treating them as if they were teenagers too. The relationship cycle is something that adult and child unconsciously recreate together in certain moments and in other moments find a more mature interaction, but the two styles of relating alternate and create confusion too.

Competition in families can also come to the fore at Christmas. Siblings and cousins can find themselves comparing their success or happiness. Parents too can compare their children to the children of a sibling. This can even be an issue between separate families coming together for celebration.

If money is in short supply generally, there is huge pressure for families and individuals to spend beyond their means, sometimes to show off to others or to portray themselves as more comfortable than they are. This can cause real distress later on when the credit card bills come in. 

So what can help with these situations? Here are some tips:

  • If you feel yourself being unfairly criticised by another member of the family, rather than fight back it’s more helpful to try to rise above it, de-escalate and find a better moment later on to gently talk to them about how the interaction felt for you and be curious about what it was like for them.
  • Try to respect everyone’s differences and allow them to opt in or opt out of participating. Forcing people to reluctantly join in to support your expectations and wishes isn’t really fair.
  • Be mindful of the effect of alcohol on heightening conflicts and also how it can be used by some to withdraw from participation.
  • Create opportunities for family members to have quiet time alone or in couples or smaller groups.
  • Try to manage disappointments quietly, and focus on something positive.
  • If couple difficulties come to mind at this time of year, quietly resolve to talk with your partner about them in the new year, and consider the option of couple therapy.