It is supposedly the most wonderful time of the year, so why is it that the holiday season is the peak time for relationship breakups and quarrels between partners and families?

Family therapist and lecturer at the Jansen Newman Institute of Counselling and Psychotherapy, Jacqueline McDiarmid, explains that conflict often arises from heightened expectations around the festive period.

"The projected fantasy of Christmas with all of its magic, warmth and love takes us on a ride that reality doesn't usually live up to," she says.

"In my experience, people who are stressed are usually stressed most of the year because of other circumstances like finance, work, and relationship issues, but Christmas adds more fuel to the fire when family dynamics are at play."

We asked Jacqueline to share with us some tips for mitigating raised expectations and handling conflicting situations at Christmas.

Learn to say 'no' gracefully

Saying 'no' to anybody is difficult at best, especially around a time that is all about generosity and 'giving'.

"Nobody likes to make a person feel bad, and most people avoid confrontations," says Jacqueline. "Most of us like to be liked and we worry about what others will think of us if we say no."

Unfortunately people can take advantage of the Christmas spirit, and it can be a useful tool to learn the art of saying 'no' gracefully.

Jacqueline recommends that a good way is to start off with a positive.

"Say something like 'that sounds really lovely, what a great idea — unfortunately we will be unable to make it though.' Putting a positive before a negative makes it easier for both the sender and the receiver of the message to deal with their feelings."

Planning is also important. "If you have financial difficulties, be honest with those who do not really need a Christmas present this year — sort a kris kringle early," she says.

Be honest with your kids

Most parents dread the day their children will ask them two questions; the first relates to the origins of their neonate selves, and the second: 'Is Santa real?'

Sometimes the latter can be even harder to answer, as your reply has the potential to cause disappointment and tears. But, as Jacqueline points out, children probably are more perceptive than we give them credit for.

"If they come to you with questions about Santa being real, there's a good chance they already know the answer, and it's a test for you and your honesty," she says.

"In my view, serious fallout from anything a child hears only comes about from persistent lying from the parents."

Jacqueline recommends answering a child honestly, and then discussing the story behind Santa, setting up an open line of communication that will take you through to their teenage years, when potentially bigger issues need to be dealt with.

"Telling your child why you have had him believe in Santa is just as important as the answer itself," she says.

Christmas after a divorce — plan and form new rituals

With the heightened expectations of being happy and 'together' at Christmas, it's easy to forget that every third marriage now ends in divorce in Australia, and the reality for many families is much different.

Children can often become embroiled in their parents' emotional stresses and anxieties at the time, rather than allowed to enjoy themselves. So how do you navigate a period that is supposed to be all about family after yours has fallen apart?

"The first Christmas after divorce is often the most difficult one to manage," says Jacqueline. "One or both parents, as well as the children are usually still moving through the grief, and sometimes there are legal matters still pending which makes the time highly charged and emotional."

She says the best way to deal with Christmas after a divorce is making sure the lines of communication remain open and arranging access well in advance.

"I recommend starting new rituals at Christmas time on both sides. This helps to make it a positive experience for everyone and helps to provide stability for children who may be struggling with their parents not being together."

"An example of a new ritual might be that the parent whose turn it is not to have Christmas day together Skype's at a certain point on Christmas day."

Talk to another adult

One of the biggest mistakes Jacqueline sees parents make is revealing their thoughts and feelings to their children around this time.

"Parents often report that their children have become good confidants or that they find their children 'supportive' emotionally. They don't realise that children actually feel upset, stressed and burdened by their parents' feelings."

"It's important that the parents set up support from other adults and not burden their children with their feelings," she says.


Lastly, Jacqueline maintains that communication is the key to mitigating heightened expectations and avoiding conflict at Christmas.

"The more you communicate with those around you the less likely you are to be disappointed," she says.

The key is to "work towards resolving conflicts within the family throughout the year, and not save it up for Christmas time when expectations are often at their highest."