Whether it’s keeping stepchildren happy, getting on with your mum’s new boyfriend or dealing with those tricky in-laws, psychotherapist Jean-Claude Chalmet knows how to make the day work for everyone.
December 16 2017, 12:01am,
How to make the most of a ‘blended family’ Christmas Day
Begin from the principle that everyone can contribute, and the day is likely to be marvellous for all. Sure, there’ll always be the odd martyr or Grinch, but these types are usually vastly outnumbered.
It’s a family occasion and families are messy. We do have this indulgence towards the self, where we want every expectation met, but imagine if every adult present all had these demands, no one would have a good time.
Choose to have a good time, don’t make it conditional. Unshackle yourself from the need to control the day because it will never be exactly as you want — yet the surprising and unchoreographed might just be brilliant.
A lot of us have this need for perfection: if the children were all beautifully mannered, if Auntie Em didn’t get weepy and maudlin, I’d be happy. Then people behave as they always do and that becomes the obstacle to your being happy. Enjoy the chaos, not the “just so”.
Your children are with your ex-partner and Christmas feels meaningless without them
Christmas isn’t meaningless, even if you are apart from your children. It’s more psychologically challenging, what with it being advertised as a neatly traditional family event — but it has as much meaning as you choose to give it.
So give your plans consideration — presumably, you’ve had 12 months to ponder possibilities if you’ve been alternating with your ex. If you’re not taking care of your children, you must take care of yourself. Spoil yourself, seek good company, eat great food. If you know you are going to feel rudderless or wretched, distract yourself by venturing outside your comfort zone.
A positive attitude is priceless. Keep your expectations in check
If you do decide to stay at home, invite a good friend who you know will lift your mood, but will understand if you have moments of gloom. But remember, it’s their Christmas too. Alternatively, do something thoughtful for someone who you know is lonely, or a local charity. Sometimes it’s much easier to do something for others than it is for ourselves, and it makes us feel good. That said, if you want to act as though it isn’t Christmas, do it — whatever gets you through the day, but ultimately helps you to feel better.
If your children are having fun with your ex-partner, be grateful — never begrudge that. Resist making yourself a martyr, or involving them in your drama. Don’t increase their guilt by choking on the phone: “I’m missing you so much!”
How to make your stepchildren feel more included
Treat your stepchildren the same as you treat your own children — give them the same perks, the same chores. And be forgiving. If they have tricky moments, you don’t have to like it, but try to understand it. Meanwhile, no matter how much trouble, effort and expense you’ve gone to, don’t tell your stepchildren how they should feel.
A positive attitude is priceless. Keep your expectations in check, as it’s our unrealistic expectations that upset us when they’re inevitably not met. Most discomfort and conflict occurs because people are nursing anxiety, stress and anger, which is the mask of hurt.
If you want, facilitate an honest conversation beforehand about what all the children would like from the day. Say something like: “This is a family situation. How can we make the day enjoyable?” Everyone gets a chance to be heard, to say what they’d like to do, or not do. Fun isn’t imposed.
With strangers around, relatives’ behaviour miraculously improvesWith strangers around, relatives’ behaviour miraculously improves
You have to spend Christmas with your parent’s new partner, whom you dislike
As a child — whether you’re 14 or 47 — you can’t win. For a start, your dislike may well be mutual. To the new partner, you’re from the other side. It’s quite uncommon to adore the children from the previous marriage. At the very least, it’s a delicate relationship, where trust and genuine warmth can take years to build.
Nonetheless, we can all be civil, particularly if we’re a guest at our parent’s house. However uncomfortable you feel, remain polite, and if possible, gracious. Of course, you can make everyone miserable by sitting there sour-faced while your mother’s boyfriend carves the turkey (a job your father always did). Your sulkiness punishes them, but it also punishes you.
If you were brave, you might tell them in a gentle way what you find difficult. Otherwise no one knows how to react. It might feel awkward to say: “It’s hard for me that Mum and Dad aren’t together, and I’m sorry that I find it difficult to be friendly towards you right now.”
As the host, it’s OK to say, ‘I think we’ve all had enough to drink.’ No need to be coy
But at least with honesty we know what we’re dealing with. It may make the situation less awkward than the passive-aggression, and it might lead to your feelings being acknowledged. If your parent is wise, they’ll dilute the intensity of the occasion by having other guests. You don’t have to be the new partner’s best friend, or a resentful bodyguard all day — take a break and spend time with others.
There’s a bickering couple in the family
I don’t think this should be tolerated on Christmas Day. If you’re hosting a couple who bicker, nip their behaviour in the bud and quickly. They’re being rude, disrespectful and making everyone uncomfortable. No exceptions — even if they are your parents. Make them go outside, and let’s hope it’s wet and cold. You wouldn’t tolerate it in children, so why should adults get away with it?
You’re spending Christmas with another family
You could be on your own because you’re divorced or separated, or you just don’t have family around. Whatever the reason, never accept a pity invitation. Only spend the day with close friends, who will let you be yourself. If you want to join the festivities, you can, but if
you want to cry your eyes out, or retreat for a while, it won’t spoil it for them (though being honest doesn’t necessitate histrionics).
Choose friends who appreciate this is an emotional rollercoaster for you. Being without your children at Christmas can feel overwhelming, especially if it’s the first time, and you need to be in an environment where you’re allowed to have emotions.
At times like this, we can feel we’re intruding, but remember they chose to invite you. Muck in, be part of their day. You can always go for a nap, or a bath, if you want to give them time together. Simply say: “I had such a marvellous lunch, a wonderful time and thank you. I’m going to read for a while.” Be grateful for your good friends who love you and want to include you.
You have two sets of in-laws coming — how to blend traditions?
This is a breeze. Unless, of course, your in-laws are tricky and tend not to get along. The question is, who are the adults? Who needs to be treated like a tiresome child? And can you mix chalk and cheese? As you’re the host, set rules. I’d discuss my ideas for the day with my parents beforehand, and I’d ask my partner to do the same with his parents.
Of course, some people confuse a courtesy call with a request for their opinion. In which case they only need to know what’s expected of them, rather than what to expect. It can be hard for parents to acknowledge that their children are adults, but there has to be acceptance of that. Be assertive. “This year, we’re doing this. I realise it’s not how you usually do it, but you can be the boss when we do Christmas at your home.”
If one lot open Christmas presents in the morning and the others are aghast because gifts must be opened after lunch, you might decide to toss a coin. But quietly take the sourpuss aside and say: “I’m asking a huge favour — could you make an effort with so-and-so? I know he can be trying, but I do want this to be a fantastic day.” No need to lay down the law, but be firm. Don’t suffer because adults refuse to behave like adults. Stagger guests, if easier, or keep them busy with chores. You might also invite very good friends or another couple, as with strangers around, relatives’ behaviour miraculously improves.
You’re hosting someone who would otherwise be alone, but you still want some precious family time
It’s perfectly acceptable to say to the person you invite: “We’d love you to join us for lunch, between three and seven.” That’s a nice, generous chunk of time. You could add, “I’m sure you understand” — not, “I hope you understand” because that’s too apologetic — “that around seven, we’d like to spend some time as a family.” If you’re so British that makes you feel faint, say: “We’re going to neighbours for drinks in the evening, but we’d love you to join us for lunch at three, and you’re welcome to stay until seven.”
And if that person finds the time limit unacceptable, they shouldn’t really come. Because that’s ungrateful. We worry unnecessarily about offending people.
Don’t be coy about saying: “I think we’ve all had enough to drink”Don’t be coy about saying: “I think we’ve all had enough to drink”
Your gift wasn’t received with the joy you hoped
If your gift was purchased in blind panic at the last minute from the corner shop, then take your punishment. Though, unless the recipient is your partner, it’s rude for them to demand the receipt. (However, if all of the above applies, you might contemplate your attitude to your relationship. We want a gift from our beloved to reflect the fact that they know us, adore us, have considered us — not to confirm that we’re an afterthought.)
However, if you bought socks for cousin Bob with good intentions, then feel not a moment’s guilt. He might hate his socks, but it doesn’t entitle him to be rude. If socks offend to such a degree, give them to charity. If the other person made an effort, we should be gracious. If we want to teach our children manners, we must contain our own inner child.
It’s also helpful to accept that some people will always disappoint us. Are we surprised that our sister-in-law who doesn’t care has re-gifted? The expectation that this Christmas people will magically change, unprompted, is unreasonable. But if you’re keen on receiving something, and it’s within their budget, simply ask them what they’d like — and let them know what you’d like. Sending a link may seem forward, but most are grateful for the convenience and help.
Managing the one person who always drinks too much
Nobody in the history of Christmas has effectively solved this problem. Nonetheless, it can help to insistently make food the focus. And one can always cheat by buying non-alcoholic wine, to be served after the usual suspect has already quaffed a few (small) glasses of booze and is less likely to notice. Serve low-alcohol beer — also in small glasses. Limiting the variety of alcohol you provide can help, and at a reasonable point you can claim to have run out of supplies. But no need to be too coy. As the host, it’s not outlandish to say: “I think we’ve all had enough to drink.”
How to deal with the lazy house guest
If a particular guest is notably lazy, smilingly approach them with a list of chores, and sooner rather than before they’re immovably wedged into an armchair. Say: “Which are you going to do? I’m counting on you!” Allow them to choose three out of ten. Of course, there’s a chance they might not do a single one. But at least you’ve made them feel bad which, surely, was your main intention.
As told to Anna Maxted
Psychotherapist Jean-Claude Chalmet offers individual, couple and family therapy (firstname.lastname@example.org)