“In each family a story is playing itself out, and each family’s story embodies its hope and despair” Auguste Napier
It is well known that there is a rise in mental illness presentations to health services at Christmas time. Much of this is understood to be linked unrealistic expectations and excessive self reflection with the comparison to the “perfect” Christmas image that the media portrays.
As families gather (or don’t gather) at this time of the year, there will be an emotional consequences that vary from joy to devastation. Old family rituals, patterns and roles are often revisited and re-established with consequences on the wellbeing of the individual and family unit. Historical triggers can open a flood gate of reminiscence that can lead to much delight or other more unacceptable feelings of sadness, shame, anger or fear. What is clear is that the family system will be under stress at Christmas and dysfunctional ways of coping can emerge leading to internal and potentially external chaos on the day and the weeks that follow.
Virginia Satir one of the originators of family systems theory thought that up to 96% of families are dysfunctional. Her idea of a healthy family is one where “Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible” and this is challenging on stress free days let alone on Christmas day! She also recognised that “ what lingers from the parent’s individual past, unresolved or incomplete, often becomes a part of her irrational parenting” leading then to the next generation facing difficulties. Adding to this, in our culture, Christmas day is associated with consumption of large amounts of alcohol- one of the ways families cope with being together, which can derail healthy thinking responses and fuel aggression and distress. The excitement of the day also can lead to children being completely hyper-aroused and having lots of difficulty containing themselves- leading the multiple meltdowns and emotional distress needing parental support that may be lacking in the midst of other agendas and pressures.
When talking with families, it is often helpful to ask them to reflect on their early memories of Christmas to learn more about how their family system worked or didn’t! In response, what is often needed is “Presence” rather than “Presents” when thinking about this time and other stressful times of life. We need to see the distress in others and “check in” to offer emotional and practical support as people work their way through the healing process that maybe needed from their Christmas’s past and present.