Stephanie Bell speaks to NI psychologist Deirdre Martin about dealing with some of the most common Christmas frustrations
It may be the season to be jolly but sadly for some people Christmas isn’t all mistletoe and wine. Family get-togethers, arguing over what to watch on the TV and even deciding who is coming to dinner can pile on the pressure during what should be the most wonderful time of the year.
To avoid disappointment and help make Christmas as stress-free as possible we’ve asked a local psychologist to share her top tips on how to deal with the most popular festive dilemmas.
Deirdre Martin, who runs her own clinic in Newtownabbey, is well used to counselling people on how to keep chaos to a minimum in the build-up to the big day.
She says: “Christmas can have its own unique stresses and strains. Some people really feel the pressure is on them to ensure that everyone else in the family has a great time and I see a lot of people who struggle because they feel they have to keep family traditions going.
“The good news is that everyone can take some simple steps to reduce this stress and make sure they too have a happy Christmas.”
Deciding where to spend Christmas and who to celebrate with is one of the top reasons for family fallouts and stress.
Deirdre says: “Having to visit too many relatives, your in-laws, own family etc while keeping kids happy and planning dinner are all stresses for people.
“Often there is a lot of pressure, expectation and obligation to visit family/in-laws on Christmas Day.
“Whilst this can work well with a lot of excitement and happiness for many, for others it can cause stress, tension, irritability and exhaustion.
“Patterns get set and established but may need reviewing and updating.
“Ask each person in your household how they would like Christmas day to go — their ideal day if you like. Consider getting them to write it down.
“This can enable them to be honest and take the heat out of a potentially conflicting situation.
“Once all suggestions have been written, make time to get together and reflect on them.
“Choose a quiet time, and really take on board everyone’s wishes.
“As humans we can struggle with change, preferring the comfort, safety and predictability of what’s been, even if it’s uncomfortable or outdated!
“Once all views have been taken into account, decide on the best option as a family. It may be better to visit over a three-day period for example than to cram several visits into one day.
“Or it could be that relatives come to you, rather than you driving to them.
“Once you have decided what you would like to have happen as a family, initiate conversations with your parents/in-laws.
“It could be that they would prefer something different or more relaxed also! When that is settled, planning and organising are key.”
Deirdre suggests we make a list of everything we need for preparing our own Christmas dinner, delegating where possible.
You can take this a step further with a visual plan that all the family can access, such as a family WhatsApp group with details of who will do what and when.
Being organised is the key to a stress-free Christmas in the kitchen.
Deirdre says: “I know it’s close to Christmas but I would advise that people prepare as much in advance as possible.
“Buy and freeze as much for the dinner and entertaining as soon as possible.
“Pretty much everything except the vegetables can be bought early, taking the pressure off nearer the time. Embrace change and remember — if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got!”
Giving and receiving gifts is one of the great pleasures of Christmas. However if your Santa list keeps growing year on year and costs are starting to spiral, it might be time to rein in the spending.
Deirdre advises on how we can cut back and not feel guilty or offend anyone.
She advises: “I’m sure you will have received at least one message by now wishing you a happy Christmas, as the sender has made a donation to charity instead of posting you a Christmas card.
“Finding the courage to tell a friend that you want to stop exchanging gifts can be more challenging however.
“I hear comments about affordability, how consumerised Christmas has become, how children have grown up and its difficult to know what to buy them and how long established patterns no longer work.
“Can you think of a time when you observed or experienced someone being assertive and having a difficult conversation with you?
“Maybe you can recall a time when you had a difficult conversation with someone? How did it go? Was it as bad as you thought it would be?
“What often comes into play here is people pleasing and/or catastrophic thinking.
“People pleasing involves putting another’s feelings and wants before your own, or at the cost or detriment to you.
“This can be a learned behaviour and most likely was established in childhood.
“It can take time to unlearn but is worth it as it can reap great rewards.
“In terms of our thinking, our thoughts can automatically become catastrophic — ‘she’ll fall out with me if I don’t buy her a present’ or ‘she’ll think I’m mean and don’t love her anymore’.
“This type of thinking can prevent these conversations taking place.
“So how do you change that? Firstly set your intention — I still love my friend but simply don’t want to exchange presents this year and want to communicate that to her.
“Then role play this with a trusted person or practice saying it out loud to get you used to hearing it.
“Next, decide on the best way to discuss this with her/him — in person or by phone?
“Visualise a successful outcome, a win/win situation and finally be prepared for some resistance. If this is the case you may need to stand your ground, but reiterate that you value the relationship and why you need to stop exchanging gifts.
“Recognise and commend yourself for having plucked up the courage to engage in the conversation and repeat where necessary!”
On the controversial subject of Covid-19 vaccinations, Deirdre advises avoiding any family rows over Christmas by simply agreeing not to talk about it.
She says: “There is a lot of fear still around Covid and yet the statistics for recovery are really quite high.
“Whether to vaccinate or not has become a bit of a hot topic and if there are opposing views among family and friends, bringing it up will just cause tension.
“My advice is to have a conversation in advance and decide as a family not to talk about it when you get together over Christmas.”
Having an empty chair at the Christmas table because you have lost a loved can be one of the most difficult aspects of this family-centred occasion.
Deirdre believes we can help control our emotions by being open and not afraid to talk about the person we love and miss.
She says: “When we lose a loved one, the ‘firsts’ can be especially emotional and difficult.
“There can be uncertainty and worry about how the day will go but more importantly, about how we will cope with not having them physically with us at Christmas.
“Often we are afraid of upsetting other people by talking about our loved one.
“However, that is exactly what we need to do.
“Having a discussion about what will happen on the day, how we will honour their memory, what will happen when sitting down to dinner, can be reassuring and takes the uncertainty out of the situation.
“In grief and loss we struggle with not having or being in control. We couldn’t control the outcome and feel we have little or no control over our emotions.
“Knowing how the day will go can reduce stress levels and make the day a little less painful than expected and can give us back some control.”
Finally, disagreements over how much money to spend, who is coming to Christmas dinner or even what to watch on TV can all create stress in the home.
Deirdre again advocates talking to each other and delegating to keep bickering at bay.
She says: “Financial rows can be easily solved if people go back to basics — is it more important to spend quality time together than money on each other?
“Can gifts be homemade and price limited? Be realistic — what is affordable, what do you really need?
“Chose peace of mind over buying expensive presents and causing unnecessary worry. Shake things up, use Covid as a reason to spend less!
“Finally don’t feel that you need to please everyone and burn yourself out.
“Traditionally it is females who are the cooks on Christmas Day and they feel they have to provide everything and do everything to make sure it is the perfect day.
“Also the older you get the more stressful this is so don’t be afraid to delegate tasks, ask for help and be open about how you feel.
“Try to make it as easy as possible on yourself by getting family members to help and don’t be afraid to break old patterns that no longer work for you. Just following some of these simple tips will take pressure off and allow you to have a happy Christmas.”
For more on Deirdre Martin see dmcounselling.co.uk