8 great tips to help you survive the Christmas holidays

Katharine Cook’s 8 tips for surviving the stress of this year’s festive season

Help! It’s the holiday season and the inevitable invasion of relatives and a full calendar of gatherings are upon us. If you believe television commercials, you should be kicking up your heels, kissing under the mistletoe, carving a perfect golden roast, all while thanking your lucky stars for every cosy moment with extended family. But if the truth be told, many feel so stressed during the silly season that thoughts of self-medicating, hiding away and last minute flights to a desert island are ideas that come to mind.

At this time of year, many people seem to suffer due to a number of reasons. Some are unrealistic in their expectations of others and themselves. Others find themselves reduced back into childhood roles they have spent their lives trying to overcome. Some expect too much of themselves and don’t concentrate of their own happiness. Some lose their assertiveness and agree to activities and events they don’t want to attend.

Therefore, if you find that the festive season consists of feeling pressure to buy gifts that are beyond your comfort levels, are giving them to kids that don’t appreciate them, are hosting events that no-one contributes to with people that you’ve managed to avoid for most of the year, then some urgent strategies are needed.

Here are my tips for surviving the stress of this year’s festive season:

  1. Lower your expectations. I know this seems like we’re starting on a downer, but I suggest re-evaluating your expectations for how things will go. If your mother in law always looks down her nose at your parenting skills, the truth is this year is not going to be any different. If you constantly get frustrated by your partner’s lack of thoughtfulness when gift buying, then why will it be different this year?

Take some time to think about what you are wishing and hoping for. Then prepare to accept things that are beyond your control. People are likely to behave as they have always done in the past. The truth is, most of us stress when we hold onto ideas about how we want others to behave and then we get disappointed when those expectations aren’t fulfilled. If we spend some time looking at our past experiences of people and accepting how we know they will be, then we are less likely to feel let down.

  1. Take control. Remember that the festive season is the wrong time to try to change people. Pointing out each other’s failings and spending time complaining, is only going to lead to negativity. If you feel that you can’t be happy until your father understands you, you may spend forever trying to please him and continuously feel unappreciated. Perhaps this year, you could take the opportunity to take control and realise that your happiness isn’t totally dependent on others.
  2. Look after yourself. Unfortunately for some, the holidays can bring up memories, both good and bad. Often people are forced to face thoughts and feelings they prefer to avoid and some are put into a position of feeling like they did when they were a child. Comments from relatives about “when you were a child” can be a source of extreme frustration. The expectations that you “should be happy” at every moment during Christmas, can also add to the pressure.

Try to do things that make you happy. Rather than sacrificing your own wellbeing, create space to do things that please you. Martyrdom does not lead to others appreciating you more. In fact the reverse is true. If you want your children to learn to take care of themselves, be a role model and show them that you are taking care of yourself by having fun, taking time out, reading a book and not responding to everyone else’s demands.

  1. Stick to your values and beliefs. This is not a point about religion, this relates to much simpler things like gift giving. If you can’t afford to buy the whole toy store for your kids, but worry about how they will feel when they are faced with their cousin’s mountain of gifts. Try to remember why you like to keep it simple. Remember why you don’t want to go into debt, and why you don’t want to end up frustrated when your child spends the whole of Christmas playing with the $10 foam rocket instead of the fifty things that cost a fortune.
  2. Appreciate how it makes you It would be lovely if everyone was grateful for your efforts, but the truth is they often won’t be. Cognitively, young children are often unable to “realise how lucky they are” or “appreciate all that they are given” because their experiences in life haven’t provided a point of comparison. If they haven’t experienced poverty or neglect they will not truly understand that they have more than others. Therefore rather than expecting appreciation from kids, perhaps encouraging a simple “thank you” may be enough.

And when adults fail to reciprocate gratitude when you make an effort or buy a gift, it can be very frustrating because they “should know better”. Again it is impossible to control other’s reactions and behaviour. Therefore try hard to concentrate on the pleasure you get out of doing things for others, regardless of other’s responses.

  1. Breathe. Literally. Remember your self-calming strategies for moments of heightened stress. Instead of putting your kids in time out, I’m a fan of Parental Time Out, where you simply remove yourself from a situation for a short period of time.  Try locking yourself in a bathroom or a bedroom and counting backwards from 100 in multiples of 7 (try it, it works!). Mediate, go to yoga, jog, stand on your head, say a quiet prayer…whatever works for you at the time.
  2. Avoid This is quite controversial but if the idea of an extended family invasion is going to send you into a permanent spiral, figure out a way to get out of it. I am a believer in putting your mental health before the needs of others. Limit the time you spend with the whole gang on Christmas day or have a year off and spend day on the beach. Say no to invitations and spend time with those who you want to. Create limits and boundaries prior to events, and then stick to them.
  3. Debrief Afterwards. Sharing your experiences with someone on your wavelength can be quite satisfying. Talking about you thoughts and feelings with someone who will understand and will be able to help you put things into perspective will help. If you know you have a catch up with a friend after the event, sometimes the worst situations can then feel like a potentially good story or a great anecdote to share.

Lastly, it’s great that Christmas only comes around once a year….try to enjoy it. Build a fort in the back yard, grab some bubbly and a good book and if all else fails remember that you’ll have the rest of the year to recover.

Katharine Cook is a Child and Family Psychologist who works with children, teens and adults faced with complex issues. After fifteen years in Child Protection, Katharine now works in Private Practice and specialises in the areas of attachment, parenting, trauma, grief, child behaviour, adolescent issues and perinatal anxiety and depression.  www.familypsychology.com.au