Dr Justin Coulson’s 7 ways to take back Christmas

The holiday season and Christmas isn't everyone's favourite time of year. Popular family and parenting educator Dr Justin Coulson shares some ideas to make the season enjoyable for the whole family.

Christmas is the season that ‘should’ fill us with joy. We are supposed to be relaxing. We are supposed to be spending time with those we love. We are supposed to be indulging just a little bit more than normal in some of the finer things of life.

This blog is reproduced with permission and originally appeared here at happyfamilies.com.au 

For some of us, that’s precisely what we do. Christmas is a delight.

Many of us, however, want to love Christmas. We know we ‘should’. It’s just that… well… we don’t seem to be able to. Time pressure and financial strain combine with big crowds, Christmas feast preparation and RELATIVES!  We love our family. We love our in-laws. We just don’t like being around them very much, particularly at Christmas.

The reason?

Some relatives don’t really get it. The house feels crowded. The kids feel cramped. Uncle Jim starts talking about the latest controversial not-for-kids programme on Netflix at the table in front of the kids. Grandma sits on the couch and starts playing a game on her phone. Your brother’s new girlfriend makes an offensive comment about your house, cooking, political view, or haircut. No one takes the hint on when it’s time to go home. At least three people have had too much to drink. And everyone watches while you do all the cooking and all the cleaning up!

And all of this is exacerbated when there’s travel involved, so sleepovers are required. Now you’re navigating your space with people you love, but don’t necessarily always like, particularly when you’re sharing your space with them.

Perhaps this is an over-exaggerated caricature. But we’ve all had that uncomfortable Christmas season where exhaustion rules, everyone is coming over for Christmas Day, and we’re really nervous because of the last big blow up that caused significant friction in the family.

In this article, I’m going to share seven strategies to beat the Christmas Grinch and…


1. Create some structure

I know this sounds awful. I know you’re thinking ‘no way’, I just want to relax. But hear me out:

If you have an outline of your afternoon or evening, you can communicate some general expectations to everyone. What time will everyone eat? Will gift giving be early or late? Do you have backup activities in case kids start complaining that they’re bored? Are there any traditions or faith-related priorities that need to be locked in?

You may not need to have these kinds of things prepared, but by having the scooters ready, a Christmas movie downloaded and ready to go, or your favourite walk mapped out, you can redirect people when things get tricky. Kids fighting? Send them out to play one of those games, switch on Netflix, or send them on a walk. The same things goes for the grown-ups. You never know who’ll need some distraction or redirection on Christmas Day.

2. Practice acceptance

Your children might groan and moan. Your partner might be apathetic or misaligned with your view. Simply accepting that this is how things are can be a helpful approach for you to get through the day. But it could also be useful for your kids. Do they hate the way a grandparent talks down to them or treats them? Make a joke about it. Accept it will happen and make a bet with them about how many times that ‘thing’ will be said or done. Encourage them to be polite always, but create your own in-jokes that can be shared privately to foster an acceptance that ‘it is what it is’.

If your partner views things differently to you, see the world through their eyes. What does it mean to them to have family around? Why do they respond the way that they do? How can you support them to get through these challenges better?

3. Craft your joy

What brings you joy at Christmas? Is it a good book by the pool? A favourite meal? Cuddles and gifts in bed with the kids on Christmas morning? The opportunity to decorate and cook? Create the space to find your moments of joy and bliss during the lead up and on the day.

4. Assume the best intentions

Perhaps your father-in-law says offensive things, particularly when he’s had a drink or two. What he is saying to you might reek of political incorrectness. It may offend your sensibilities. And you may be right! But in all likelihood he’s trying to share something important to him. He believes he is right and wants you to realise his wise ways.

The same applies to comments on the garden, the cooking, the kids… in their own clumsy way your relatives are trying to be helpful by pointing out all of your faults and everything that’s wrong with the way you live your life. It’s clumsy. It’s wrong-headed. It’s inappropriate. But… they’re trying. Not in the way you’d like them to try, granted. But they are trying. Assume the best intentions and you’ll find it easier to stomach.

5. Find ways to serve one another

A wise mentor taught me that as we serve others, our love for them increases. And as our love for others increases, we desire to serve them more. Find joy in your service to your family. Express appreciation to them for taking the time to be with your family when they could have chosen alternatives at Christmastime (even if you think you’d have preferred that they did). As you serve them, watch their appreciation. Feel the love. My tip: serving your family will bring you closer together. Do it willingly without expectation and feel the way it shifts your heart.

6. Heal wounds

There is something deep inside each of us that desires closeness with kin. We are biologically and psychologically predisposed to want to connect with family, share involvement and experiences, and simply be together. When those relationships rupture, Christmas time and other festive family occasions can be isolating. Wounds can fester. Sometimes the best way to make family feel close is to swallow our pride, acknowledge our faults, and say sorry. Unconditional apologies (where we don’t demand that our apology be met with another one from them) heal families and make being together joyful.

7. Serve with a higher cause

When we come together with a common purpose, particularly one that is deep and meaningful, difficulties can be overcome and relationships can be strengthened. Some families use Christmas as a time to donate to a cause together or volunteer in the community. Some choose to work as a family to decorate their home and yard with Christmas lights that bring delight to the neighbourhood. And for those with a faith background, service through religious participation can also bind families and strengthen relationships.

When all else fails...

These seven strategies can bring families closer at Christmas. But… sometimes, regardless of how hard you try, family functions are just too hard. You may not be able to get along. When this happens, the following three ideas might help:

  • Stay polite. Just grin and bear it. It will all be over in a few hours (or days if they’re staying)
  • Set your expectations low. It’s the secret to happiness. Low expectations mean that if things go the way you expect, it’s not a disappointment. But with low expectations it’s easier to be pleasantly surprised
  • Set boundaries. It’s ok to say ‘Jeff, the last three years we’ve had issues. We’re keeping alcohol off the table this year.’ If Jeff has a problem (and wants to bring his own) you can say ‘No. Not this year.’

And these two last-resort options might help:

  • Set up your day so that some ‘unexpected’ friends drop by at just the right time to ease the pressure. A visit from a friend or neighbour will lift everyone’s mood, give you some respite, and encourage your family to be on their best behaviour.
  • Cancel Christmas. Sometimes it might actually all be too much. If you just can’t face it, don’t.

Ultimately, no one can ruin Christmas for us. We get to decide. Sure, our family might have their quirks and challenges. But we are the ones who decide whether we will be annoyed.  We are the ones who decide whether to take offence.  We are the ones who decide our response. Your relatives don’t make you mad. You choose it.

This Christmas, choose gratitude, forgiveness, service, and connection. This Christmas, choose joy.

About Dr Justin Coulson

This blog is reproduced with permission and originally appeared at happyfamilies.com.au

Dr Justin Coulson is the co-host and parenting expert on Channel 9’s ‘Parental Guidance’, the founder of happyfamilies.com.au, and one of Australia’s most trusted parenting experts.

He has written 6 books about raising children, multiple peer-reviewed journal articles and scholarly book chapters.

You can watch a webinar Justin presented for The Parents Website, Guiding your children sensitively through tough times

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