Why Christmas Isn’t for Everyone
By Ella Vale
‘It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,’ as the well-known song goes, but what does Christmas actually look like for children and parents? Perhaps most of our Christmases don’t reflect the adverts which surround us at this time of year, and for many it is undoubtably a time of increased pressures, both financial and emotional.
A time of disrupted schedules and overlooked cultural diversity
For children, who negotiate the change between the school environment and the home environment daily, the festive season can create confusion and uncertainty, especially if school celebrations are not reflected at home, or festivities enjoyed at home are rarely mentioned at school.
A colleague here at the Bridge Foundation shared her own reflections with me on the way her daughter, growing up in a Jewish family, began to become aware of the differences between her celebration of Chanukah and her friends’ celebration of Christmas as she grew older, even smuggling Christmas decorations into her room. Some children may feel very mixed up as they attempt to go from one system of thoughts and beliefs to another.
Taking a moment to think with your child about how it might feel to negotiate these changes may help, as well as asking teaching staff to be sensitive to your child’s needs and communications during the festive season.
Some children will also benefit from clear explanations about what is planned, or from understanding around needing to escape to a quieter room at times during noisy family gatherings.
A period when family difficulties can become more heightened
As extended families attempt to come together, parents can feel themselves pulled back into at times destructive and difficult family dynamics, or under pressure to provide something for their own children which they perhaps feel they weren’t offered themselves. Many parents can find themselves taking on too much, ending up feeling isolated or overwhelmed.
Keeping realistic expectations in mind and aiming for simpler ‘shared’ moments together may help to ease these pressures.
A painful or confusing milestone when dealing with absence or loss
For those families who have experienced loss, be it through divorce, bereavement or displacement from their homes, the picture-perfect Christmas can feel very far away. In families where there has been a bereavement, it can be common for children to feel intense guilt about wanting to have fun and enjoy themselves or ‘forgetting’ to feel sad, especially if those around them are struggling with grief.
Letting them know that expressions of happiness and joy are still allowed can provide great relief. Acknowledging or verbalising the losses the family has suffered can be a way of helping children to understand that conflicting or ‘messy’ emotions don’t need to be ignored or pushed away.
A cause of increased pressures for ‘good’ behaviour
Children inevitably pick up on the complex family dynamics which can occur at this time of year, and parents can find themselves facing challenging behaviour just at the point when they are under the most strain. Excitement and anticipation can easily become a tantrum or refusal to join in with the family – behaviours that can feel specially designed to ruin the day.
Reminding yourself that all behaviour – even very challenging, perhaps ungrateful-seeming behaviour – is a communication, can help with this perception. Just a brief moment to connect and think together about what may be going on, or what your child might be attempting to communicate, could help.
A reminder of childhood slipping away
A moody teenager complaining about a gift may well be communicating a much deeper disappointment, as they mourn the loss of their younger selves, a loss made acute by the yearly repetition of Christmas.
Parents themselves may also be caught up in this mourning as they remember a time when they could more readily understand their child or provide them with a Christmas they knew they would enjoy. Finding time to come together with your teenager and attempting to remain curious about what they enjoy now, can help, as well as remembering that most teenagers can seem independent and autonomous one moment, rapidly followed by needing support and attention much closer to that of a younger child.
Symbolism beyond the Christmas icons – a psychoanalytic perspective
Gifts, by their very nature, can symbolise so many things. Wrapped up alongside each present may also be unspoken, less conscious ideas which we are often not aware of. Underneath the gift-wrap may hide attempts to ‘gift’ a child what we feel we lacked as a child ourselves, or to recreate or come back into contact with our own childhoods. Unconscious desires to keep our teenagers little, or to grow our more dependent children up, can all be ‘part and parcel’ of the exchange of gifts. Because of this second, hidden gift, the way in which a present is received can also have far-reaching consequences and we can all find ourselves reacting to a less-than-ecstatic acceptance of a present in a way which may be out of proportion, because of unspoken ideas about hope or repairing something, linked to gifts in our minds.
How can families navigate and process these challenges of the festive season?
Simply reflecting on the year that has been can be a helpful exercise for any family. To acknowledge the highs and the lows, losses and gains, can be a way of processing those experiences together. Most Christmases may not ‘look’ much like the adverts or our imaginings, but a simple moment of connection or understanding with a child can be a valuable gift.