Christmas can be brilliant, but with lots of people and activities – often in small spaces and fuelled by alcohol – family stress at Christmas can lead to tension and rows.

It’s easy to snap at people when you’re around them all day, especially if you’re trying to prepare Christmas dinner and feeling the pressure for everything to be just so.

‘Perfection’ can lead to family stress at Christmas

“We often feel we have to give our families, and particularly our children, the perfect Christmas,” says Sue Harper, deputy director of the family support charity Family Action. “But affording the extra food and presents is a real weight for many families, and even when they can afford to indulge, the coordination required to produce that ‘perfect’ moment can be very stressful and create real tension.”

Here, Harper shares six tips for dealing with family stress at Christmas.

How to deal with family stress at Christmas

1. Remember ‘perfect’ doesn’t exist

Television, magazines and adverts promote the idea of a perfect Christmas, and social media also has a big role to play. People often only share the positive or exceptional aspects of their celebrations, leaving us with the feeling that everyone else is having a better time than we are.

Remember that the picture perfect Christmas likely doesn't exist.
Remember that the picture perfect Christmas likely doesn’t exist.

While we can’t stop the media portrayal of Christmas, we can have conversations with our children and loved ones about what’s really important for them and focus on what’s realistic. It’s your Christmas – don’t measure yourself against anybody else.

2. Be kind to yourself

One of the most valuable things available during Christmas is your energy and enthusiasm, so take steps to ensure you look after yourself during the festive season. Try to ensure you get enough sleep – if you’re tired you’re more likely to get stressed – and don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t provide everything you want to.

Self-care is something parents often neglect during this busy time, but you need to think about your own health and make it a priority. It can be useful for parents to do research on mindfulness – paying attention to how you feel in the present moment rather than focusing on the past or future.

3. Discuss gifts to reduce family stress at Christmas

Some family members may have more disposable income and be able to buy expensive gifts or luxury food items which you can’t afford to reciprocate, and this can be a source of tension.

Discuss presents and gifts beforehand to reduce family stress at Christmas
Discuss presents and gifts beforehand to reduce family stress at Christmas.

Many people love to spoil their extended families, and if it doesn’t bother you then it can take some pressure off your shoulders knowing your children will get some expensive gifts. But if this makes you feel uncomfortable, why not agree in advance a maximum gift value and share out what everyone brings to Christmas meals and events.

4. What can your family do for you?

When you’re the person responsible for cooking Christmas dinner or buying gifts for everyone, it can be overwhelming. By doing it all on your own, you might be doing your family a disservice.

Ask family to help with tasks such as preparing Christmas dinner.
Ask family to help with tasks such as preparing Christmas dinner.

Grandparents, siblings and other family members often love to feel useful but don’t want to seem overbearing. Certainly in the case of our parents, they’ve been doing this job for a long time and have lots of skills they can use to help with the preparations. People often quite like to have a role to fill – ask them to help!

5. Make getaway plans

It can be useful to think of a way to deal with particular moments of tension over the festive season. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to – but if you know you’ll find yourself in a difficult family situation, you can set a time limit in advance and leave when it gets too much. It helps to try and visit other people’s houses, so you’re in control of when you leave if you feel you need to.

6. You’re not alone in dealing with family stress at Christmas

Talk to your friends about how they manage the festive season – even if their concerns are different to yours, it will help you understand nobody has it all figured out, and they may even be able to help you with tips they use.

Family Action’s Family Monsters initiative focuses on highlighting the pressures shared by all families, in a bid to show that sharing problems can help put them in context and make them feel less overwhelming.

Need more ways to reduce pressure at Christmas? Read Wise Living’s 10 tips for a stress-free Christmas.

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