How to avoid the Christmas stress-fest

A quarter of all Christmas family reunions end in disaster. But they don’t have to.

How to avoid the Christmas stress-fest

As they stream back through the festively-decorated airports, our returned emigrants will have high hopes of their first Christmas at home in possibly several years.

Loved ones waiting to greet them will be equally happy and excited — but, say the experts, the prospect of a big family Christmas can result in clashing, or even unrealistic, expectations.

All adjustment periods are stressful, says psychologist Patricia Murray and a Christmas holiday featuring the long-awaited return home of a loved one for the first time in several years is actually a case of what she terms “enforced quick change”.

And this, says Murray, “is one of the most stressful things you can do”.

Living in a very different culture on the opposite side of the world for three or four years will often have wrought changes in attitudes and behaviour, says Murray.

“You have to accept the change. They’ll come home and they may have got out of the habit of putting up with things and may want to ‘re-arrange’ everything.

“Tolerate their annoying habits — often returnees will even want to ‘re- arrange’ their parents’ relationship. You just have to be tolerant and let it go. Let it all run over you, it’s just another part of life.”

Have a gentle sense of humour, she suggests. Ask a question like “Is that how they do it out in Sydney then?” but never mock, Murray counsels.

“Be light and try to relate to this young person who has had new experiences and wants to re-engineer things at home.

“Embrace the changes they bring. Be aware that they’ll have high expectations of happiness.”

What you should not do, she says, is start “slagging” young emigrants who have jetted in for Christmas with new ideas and attitudes — they have just, very naturally, absorbed elements of another culture. And another thing: “Be prepared that they may try to impress,” she says.

“They are young, they may have gone through a lot and want to prove that they’ve grown up and achieved things.”

The best thing to do is to make a fuss of them, she advises. Don’t take moans about the cold or the temperature personally, and don’t organise any big family meal or reunion for the first 24 hours after they arrive, she advises.

Remember, she says, emigrants who have been away for a few years may find a short, intense visit home unexpectedly difficult. They may struggle to fit back into day-to-day family life, she says.

“The longer they are away, the higher the expectations in terms of how well everything is going to go and how great it will be.

“Their expectations of family life are different. They’ve forgotten the day-to-day blood, sweat and tears that are involved in family life.

“They may come back and find they are fighting with somebody and end up feeling very guilty, that things didn’t live up to their expectations.”

Coming home and seeing the family is good for you she says, but in about 25% of cases it’s not successful, particularly in the case of emigrants who have absent for a number of years.

So, for example, people who emigrated back in 2009 and are coming home for the first time since, may find the process of re-entry a little bumpy.

“Families are cauldrons. When you go back into it, it can seem unfamiliar.”

For example, she says, family members who have remained at home, are quite used to big brother’s habit of throwing his shoes at the door when he sits down, but for a returned emigrant who has lived abroad for two or three years and forgotten this, it will seem peculiar. Try to understand this, she advises.

“It’s important to make an effort to make the visit home a special experience for those who have been away for longer, and who have gone to much trouble and expense to come home and visit.”

So don’t rush things: “Relax with each other, sleep late, change and give them space.”

Don’t turn the big family Christmas Dinner into a stress-fest, advises Dr Patrick Ryan, Head of Psychology at the University of Limerick.

Work out your expectations in advance, and make clear to your guests what’s expected of them:

We all want to have a wonderful time, he says, but when you think about it, what’s actually happening at Christmas is that we’re bringing people together who do not, ordinarily, spend a lot of time together.

“There can be an intensity of interaction as a result of holidays from school and work, bad weather, sugar-filled food for the kids and alcohol for the adults — and it can be a recipe for a headache.”

So don’t leave people wondering whether they are supposed to bring a dish for the dinner, or whether they are simply expected to offer to help.

“We often don’t set out the rules clearly,” he says. This year, decide how you will distribute the many tasks associated with a Christmas dinner.

“It could be useful to decide to ask one person to bring a dessert or to have the vegetables done. If there are a lot of kids around, get the family jester out with them to run off their energy.”

Once you let everyone know what the expectations are, he says, things will run very smoothly.

“People are often quite relieved to be given a responsibility because then they know what they should be doing. They shouldn’t have to try and second-guess it or feel guilty about either not doing anything, or doing too much.”

Remember, he quips: “There’s probably nothing scarier than the host doing everything and leaving the guests sitting there and looking on.

And if there’s squabbling or a bit of back-biting going on, remember that it’s not the host’s job to constantly intervene.

“You can try to change the subject or smooth things over but if they’re going to have a row, I’d let them off — it’s your day too.”


Christmas can be a difficult time for families with separated or divorced parents.

It’s an emotional time, particularly for the parent who’s not spending Christmas with the children — and this can upset children too:

“Parents who are not having their children for Christmas can find it a very emotionally difficult time. The kids will pick up on their feelings. A lot of kids feel really guilty about this,” says Kate Byrne, child and adolescent psychologist.

Even though the situation is beyond the child’s control, her or she can feel really bad about leaving a parent, she says — and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a fresh separation or a long-established divorce. The pain is still there for everyone.

Although it’s difficult, she says, try to hide any pain you may be feeling.

Make your own traditions for the year your child doesn’t spend Christmas with you.

“Have your Christmas Day the day before,” Byrne suggests.

Amicable separations make the whole situation much easier to manage, but if this is not the case, things can be challenging.

Even Christmas gifts can be prickly. A parent who is feeling guilty may over-compensate for the upset caused by the separation, and give children too many expensive toys.

“If you can, discuss a budget with your ex-partner and get the kids to get a Christmas list rather than making Christmas competitive.”

Be considerate to the parent who is not having the children this Christmas Day, and ensure you drop the children back on time.

Thomas Riedmuller, mediator and communication trainer, is running a ‘relationship dojo’ course for families at Christmas on Thursdays (Dec 12 and 19) from 7:30-10 pm at the West Lodge Hotel in Bantry, and in Cork City on Mondays (9th and 16th) from 7-10pm at Dervish, 50 Cornmarket Street. For bookings, contact: or 023-8847001

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