When Christmas is complicated

The challenges of Christmas

It’s December already and I must find a Christmas tree in my new, unfamiliar suburb.  Someone mentioned they had finished their Christmas shopping the other day and I realised I hadn’t even begun to think of buying presents.  How did we get to December so fast?!  Like many people, I’m tired in December as we hurtle towards the finish line of another year.  After a recent move that involved a reverse tree change, I was sitting listlessly on the couch flicking through a magazine.  There was a Christmas feature with smiling, happy families (colour coordinated in white, of course) and tables laden with delicious, though dubiously glossy, food.  “What a crock!” I thought as I threw the magazine on the coffee table.

In my line of work, you get to see beneath the façade of smiling, happy families to the complex dynamics at the heart of every family.  I often wish that everyone could have a stint as a therapist so we could all have a greater understanding of what “normal” is.  Normal is often messy and complicated – there are no soft filters for normal.  We do not live Instagram lives despite our social feeds.  Christmas time is often a difficult time for families already stretched with strained relationships, change and complexity.  For some, Christmas is a time when they are thrown together with people that they have struggled with, and continue to struggle with.  It can also be a time when the loss of the family unit or loved ones is felt more deeply.

We need to get real about Christmas.  It is not just about joy, merriment, and abundance – it can also be a time of fatigue, disappointment and loss.  Ok, that sounds pretty dark and I promise I don’t go around screaming at department store Santas, “You don’t exist!”  I actually enjoy Christmas even though it is complex because family is important to me, and I understand that family is a little messy.  It keeps things interesting.

My main point is, if Christmas brings mixed emotions for you, you are not alone.  It’s important to have realistic expectations about what you expect from yourself, your family members and also from the day itself.   There’s a lot of pressure put upon poor old Christmas!

Common Christmas challenges (and how to manage them):


1. The “difficult” family member

Family difficulties exist on a spectrum.  At the lower end of the scale are family members who rub you the wrong way because you have different values and beliefs.  These are the people you just need to be polite to, compassionate towards or keep your distance from.  It can help if the gathering is large so there can just be polite hellos and then you can take yourself off somewhere else.  If you do have to interact, keep it respectful and remove yourself as soon as possible.  Avoid watching them or speaking with other family members about them as you will only turn a spark of annoyance into the full flame of anger.  Be mindful not to drink too much so that your inhibitions are lowered, and it begins to seem like a good idea to get some things off your chest!

At the other end of the scale are family members who have hurt you in a way that has been damaging to your physical or psychological safety.  If this is the case, you need to establish whether it is ok for you to be there in their presence.  You may decide that it is not in your best interests to be there on Christmas day.  You can choose to catch up with other relatives on a different day or another time on Christmas day if it feels safer and more comfortable for you.  Don’t put yourself through something which feels like an ordeal.  You deserve to feel safe and comfortable.

2. The Christmas handover

Anybody who is separated or divorced has had to do a Christmas handover.  This can be a particularly difficult time especially if it’s early days in your separation.  Handover can bring up a range of feelings, from disappointment to full blown grief.  There are a series of losses that most people are not prepared for when they separate, such as the loss of traditions and familiarity, time with the ex-partners family, awkward interactions with your children who are trying to adjust and seeing your ex either happy or unhappy without you.

Preparing yourself for the discomfort of handover can be helpful.  You may choose to acknowledge with family members and your children that it is strange, but it will get easier in time.  It is important to have realistic expectations that it is going to be a bit painful.  Comfort and encourage yourself that you can manage that pain and it will pass.  Focus on what you would like to create for you and your children and have some plans for how you are going to achieve that.

At hand over try to remember some of your ex-partner’s good qualities so that you can develop a sense of warmth towards them.  If you can’t manage to generate warmth at least greet your ex-partner with respect.  Don’t focus on whether they reciprocate with warmth and respect.  If they don’t, maintain your dignity and keep the handover brief.  The most important thing is that you act with integrity, behaving in a way that makes you feel proud.  Park any strong emotions and process them later.  Make the handover as smooth and pain free for everyone as possible so you can enjoy the time with your children.

(For more tips on processing strong emotions see https://thinkbetter.com.au/a-profound-practice-to-free-yourself-from-emotional-reactivity/)

3. The missing loved one

When you lose someone you love, you feel their absence acutely.  In the first year there are many occasions that you would have previously spent with them, that you now need to experience without them.  Birthdays, special occasions and Christmases can be bitter-sweet times.  If you anticipate that Christmas will be a difficult time for you after the loss of a loved one or the separation of your family, be kind to yourself.

Lower your expectations of Christmas day, understanding that Christmas may be more emotionally laden, and therefore tiring, than usual.  Don’t take on too much and give yourself space to assess what you need during the day.  Perhaps more cuddles with loved ones or some time alone in a quiet room.  Acknowledge to yourself that it is normal to feel this way and it will get easier in time.  As often as you can, bring yourself into the present moment with the people that you are surrounded by and try to enjoy moments during the day.

4. The estranged family

While family can be challenging, sometimes it is more challenging to not have contact with family at all.  Some families are estranged or are separated by great distance.  Christmas can be a difficult time when you are unable to connect with family.  Watching families and friends gathering in the lead up to Christmas can provoke a range of uncomfortable feelings such as loneliness, sadness, anger, and disappointment.

Be kind to yourself if you are feeling this way and reach out to friends for connection.  If friends are busy on Christmas day, arrange to celebrate on an alternative day.  You could also consider hosting a Christmas celebration for people in your local community or volunteer to feed those in need on Christmas day.  Alternatively, you might like to see if you can embrace being alone.  Alone and lonely are two separate things.  You could celebrate being alone by indulging in your favourite things – perhaps a movie marathon, a bath and a favourite meal.

Relationship red flags (and their antidotes)

Relationship red flags (and their antidotes)

Most of us are familiar with the term “red flags” and everyone has experienced them somewhere in their relationship history. Red flags are issues that signal problems in relationships which, left unaddressed, will eventually lead to relationship breakdown. Don’t get caught unaware…

Use this free guide to identify red flags & what to do about them.

Sign up below and I’ll send you the guide and keep you in the loop.

Sign up below and I’ll send you the guide and keep you in the loop.

Top 7 Habits of great relationships

The 7 Signs of a Healthy Relationship

Truly great relationships require proven strategies to maintain a loving and deep connection.  Practiced regularly, these 7 habits will increase connection and fulfilment in committed relationships.

Don't be left wondering.  Access the guide for practical strategies and skills you can apply today to start fresh, deepen your connection and create an envy-worthy relationship.

Use this free guide to level up your realtionship to great!

Sign up below and we'll send you the guide and keep you in the loop.

We promise not to bombard your inbox with loads of emails you'll just delete. We focus on quality rather than quantity.


  1. Dawn

    Reading this article, makes me appreciate that their are many others who find families sometimes complicated to b with and how important it is to b kind to yourself, and work, as my therapist, would say within your window of tolerance

    • Amy Islip

      Yes, you are not alone Dawn. Most families have their difficulties. You’ve also given us a lovely reminder to work within your window of tolerance. Thanks!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *