Behaviour & Emotions

Peace on earth: Navigating tricky relationships at Christmas

Tricky relationships

We know that Christmas can be a time of joyful delight, and for some of us it is, but for others – pressures and strains culminate and the thought of navigating relationships that are already a bit tense can feel overwhelmingly daunting and un-joyful.

For many, Christmas means sharing a small space – often your own home – with people you love, but don’t necessarily get on with easily. Differences can be magnified under stress, tolerance can hit an all-time low under pressure, routines can be disrupted leaving over-tired, over-stimulated kids, and frankly, weary adults.

So how do we prioritise connection with our loved ones without depleting our own parenting reserves? Here are some ideas that could help:

Keeping things calm and bright

1. Some structure

Aim to have a plan for the day (or days, if you have multiple family get-togethers like many people do!) - so people know expectations and timeframes (including the appropriate time to go home!) Lock in the traditions and priorities, tell people what help you’ll need and when, and have some back-up activities in store for bored kids… or bored adults!

2. Boundaries

It's absolutely fine to have some boundaries. Be honest with yourself and your whānau – if you need a quiet house for your kids’ afternoon naps, so be it. Or if you need everyone gone by 8pm so you can have some time to unwind with your partner, totally fine. If your kids are keen to spend the morning just the few of you, opening presents and having breakfast together – tell Grandma that you’ll be over at lunchtime. Or if travelling for two hours on Christmas day is going to result in a grumpy toddler, think about saving your whānau visit for a few days after Christmas. We’re all for continuing family traditions, but not if they leave us and our tamariki feeling exhausted and stretched.

3. A generous serving of acceptance

There’s a heap of stuff we can’t change in life, especially when it comes to other people! Adopt a posture of ‘water off a duck’s back’ for the things that you know you might find irritating. Encourage your kids to laugh and make an in-joke (that you can giggle about later, not in front of the joke’s subject!) about things that bother them too. We can still love our family members and be polite and honouring, even if we feel a bit bothered by their comments or actions. If you need to step away for a moment, give yourself permission to do so. Take the recycling out to the bins that are conveniently located quite far from the house in a quiet corner of the garden and use the moment to draw in a deep breath, pause and reflect. Kids might also need help to prepare for this form of gracious acceptance.

4. Assuming the best

It can really help to remind ourselves that most people are just trying to do their best. Their intentions likely came from a place of care, even if their actions or words were a bit clumsy. Yep, sometimes you don’t agree with the opinions of family members, but maybe in them sharing their mind with you, they’re just trying to connect. Smile and nod. Have a neutral response up your sleeve – “That’s an interesting thought”.

Their intentions likely came from a place of care, even if their actions or words were a bit clumsy.

5. More joy!

Intentionally pursue the things that bring you joy at Christmas. Make space for them and savour them. This will help lessen the impact of things that potentially steal your joy.

6. And remembering our choices

We get to choose how we respond to those around us, as hard as that can be sometimes. Choose acceptance over offence – they didn’t mean it. Choose gratitude – counting blessings may sound cliché, but absolutely helps magnify the positives and minimise the negatives. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to model a spirit of thankfulness to our kids who observe and mirror our adult attitudes and behaviours. Choose joy and have fun. Laugh, even though the jokes in the Christmas crackers are pretty lame. Laughter is a great medicine and works wonders for the vibe in a house full of people doing their best to get along.

Christmas is a short season, and soon you will be camping or baching at some remote beach location with a good book and no mobile coverage.

For those navigating divorce and blended families

For many families, Christmas means complex layers of shared custody and blended families. Children have two family homes to go between and multiple sets of grandparents and relatives to visit. And you the parent end up with overlapping and competing calendars to coordinate. These three things can help:

1. Compromise

The goal is for everybody to arrive at the best outcome possible. One ex-partner winning and the other losing inevitably means your kids will lose too.

2. Treat your ex like you would a colleague

Aim to keep the relationship civil and helpful, so you can both do your best parenting work. This is now a professional relationship - like that between colleagues. Clear communication and expectations will really help you help each other.

3. Prioritise your kids

No matter how you feel about your ex, think about the things you can do to make Christmas as enjoyable as possible for your kids. This will require teamwork from a partnership that has disbanded, which is difficult but not impossible – especially if you keep your children in mind.

If you need to break with family traditions and to do something completely different this Christmas – that’s okay too. Christmas is a short season, and soon you will be camping or baching at some remote beach location with a good book and no mobile coverage.

Parenting square

Parenting Place

For over 25 years, Parenting Place has been here offering support and advice to New Zealand parents. We think that with the right support, parenting any age and stage can be a relatively stress-free and fun experience. You're doing great!

Recommended Content

Get relatable parenting advice and inspo for your family, direct to your inbox

Subscribe now