It’s meant to be a fun and happy time, but it’s often the most hectic and exhausting time of the year. Mad rushing around shopping for presents. Social Christmas functions. Overeating and over-imbibing. Planning, negotiating with and spending enforced time with extended family. Sure, these may be “First World problems”, but the inescapable reality is that it can be a very stressful time. And this is inevitably exacerbated if you’re going through a breakup. What are some of the ways you can proactively reduce festive stress, both for you and your children?
An interesting article by Western Alliance Health Research looks at the relationship between holidays and stress and is well worth a read. For example, research has shown there’s a statistically significant increase in suicide numbers on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. Scientists have hypothesised several reasons why, including the “broken promise effect”:
“…the idea that some culturally special days promise more than they can deliver, and when they fail to deliver, some people are left feeling deflated and at increased risk of suicide. Holiday periods are expected to be enjoyable, but often come with additional stressors such as overspending, family conflict and alcohol use. Moreover, being unable to share holiday time with family, for reasons such as distance or work commitments, can exacerbate loneliness and depression.”
Aside from heightening the risk of suicide, when the festive season generates prolonged stress, this can also have a very negative effect on your physical health. Factors that generate stress have been shown to be: novelty, unpredictability, threats to the ego, and loss of a sense of control.
And when you think about how your kids may feel at Christmas if there’s an environment of hostility between their parents and a dramatic change to parenting arrangements, it’s clear that all of these four factors could come into play. So it’s very important to do what you can to avoid your children becoming stressed over the “festive” period. The good news is there are ways you can reduce their festive stress.
How to help reduce your kids’ festive stress
First and foremost, let your kids know both their parents love them just the same as ever, even if you don’t love each other anymore. A feeling of security is probably the best Christmas present you can give them.
Also, never create loyalty issues. This means never asking the children to choose between you and your ex. However, it’s OK to involve them in festive planning and ask how they want to spend the time they have with you over the holidays.
When arranging contact, depending on your kids’ ages and developmental stages, you might need to minimise travel and disruption around the Christmas holidays. It can be all just too much for younger kids to handle, overly exciting and tumultuous. Some kids may not be able to handle an influx of relatives, particularly if they are not well known. Younger kids might become very unsettled having to move between homes at this time, or they will worry that Santa won’t know where to find them (make sure you find a way to reassure them the big guy will know). Aim to achieve the smoothest possible transition between two homes, and never spring last-minute surprise changes on the kids.
While there can be a lot of scary new changes when parents break up, positive novelty can still be a good thing. So create new traditions. For example, if you won’t be seeing them Christmas Day, you might think of creating a new tradition of giving “Christmas Eve boxes” filled with little night-before-Christmas gifts like Santa cookies and special Xmas onesies.
What about reducing your festive stress?
If your arrangements mean that you will spend festive time on your own, make plans to keep busy to avoid the normal feelings of guilt, loneliness and even grief. Make sure to have quality time together with the kids before or after they go.
The research mentioned above suggests that having a holiday in itself “delivers meaningful short-term benefits for physical and mental health, while participation in a formal health and wellbeing program such as meditation provides longer-term benefits”. The article also provides information on strategies to manage stress, which you may find helpful. And if you are struggling, consider seeing your GP to organise a mental health plan and accessing psychology and counselling services at no cost.
If you’re worried things won’t be “perfect”, remember that the “ideal Christmas” projected in advertising and on social media feeds is illusory in nature. How you celebrate might be different—but that’s OK, and it can still be special. Let go of the unrealistic expectations and avoid causing money worries by trying to live up to some false ideal. It’s often a good idea to speak to your ex about coordinating presents so that you don’t inadvertently double up. If your ex tries to “out-do” you on the present front, don’t play that game. Instead, aim to truly live the spirit of Christmas: Let the kids know you want them to have fun at your ex’s at Christmas, and help them shop for gifts for your ex and other members of your ex’s household (if there are any). This will go a long way towards preventing the child from feeling bad for arriving empty-handed with nothing to place under the tree.
If you become stressed worrying whether your ex will let the kids down and things will fall through at the last minute, agree on arrangements well in advance, aim for good communication, and allow enough time to resolve any issues that could come up during discussions before the festive period.
Just as you probably crawled around your house on all fours to take your baby’s perspective back when you were child-proofing your house, make the effort to consider the festive arrangements from the perspective of your child. This will help you get a better feel for how it’s all going to affect them. Remember, as always, it’s all about your children and their best interests.
Do you need help negotiating parenting arrangements or with another family law matter? Please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our experienced solicitors here at Alliance Legal Services on (02) 6223 2400.
Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Legal Services.