December 13, 2023
Planning for Peace
By Dr Kathy Weston
Much as we would all like to consider the festive break a time of unparalleled family cohesion and collective bliss, if we are really honest about it, it can also sometimes be characterised by family squabbles and fallouts. As we approach the holiday season, what can we do to ensure that our expectations are steeped in realism and our family are ready to bring their best selves to the festive table?
There is no family in the world untouched by arguments, the odd inter-generational disagreement, pettiness, sibling squabbles or accusations of disrespect. In the run-up to the festive season, fatigue on the part of both adults and children, administrative and work stress, seasonal illness and the heavy weight of expectation can fuel less than harmonious relationships at home. Over the past few weeks, I have heard from several parents who are ‘sick and tired’ of offspring biting back with rude remarks, worn out by ingratitude, or worried about the fact their children don’t want to hug them, preferring the solitude of their bedroom.
These comments seem to be flowing in from the parents of teenagers in particular. I feel for these parents (I’m one of them!). It can be so hard to see an irritated teen as anything other than ungrateful. It is so easy to see them as unreasonable or impossible to deal with, and write them off as a ‘typical teen’. It can also be incredibly easy to get riled up and storm into their room demanding they do as we say: get up, get showered, get revising, tidy their room and pick their clothes off the floor. If you think about it, we are more likely to do this when we are irritated with ourselves and can’t manage our own stress levels. Yes, us adults might just take the odd thing or two out on our own children. We too might struggle to regulate our emotions and to fight that gremlin inside that wants to shout at all around us. Our mood can also escalate from zero to meltdown in less than 60 seconds. Have you ever been met with incredulity from your children? “Why are you shouting at me?”, “You have already told me to do that”, “Stop telling me the same thing!” and it can feel like we are on a hideous rowing roundabout that can leave us feeling depleted, sad and frustrated. Is there a better way?
I am a big fan of the ‘pre-emptive strike conversation’. As counter-intuitive as it might sound, getting ahead of the game and asking your family where the potential trigger or irritation points might be this festive holiday might be the answer. Be brave; surface worries and wobbles, and importantly some solutions.
Everyone is different and every family is different but we can all likely anticipate the typical trouble that might lie ahead on days when families get together. How often have these fictional occurrences resonated in your life? Auntie Mary’s insistence the children take their shoes off in her house upon arrival (remember last time when one didn’t and the visit started on a low note?). Or Uncle Bob’s insistence that your teens are old enough for a glass of port (in total disregard for your rules and beliefs), your parents ignoring your baby’s sleep schedule that has taken months to get right, the meat menu at your in-law’s house (despite the fact you are a vegetarian), the irritation that your partner hasn’t bothered to buy you a gift (despite you telling them you don’t want anything this year)?
As we speak, I am lining up my top picks of ‘things that will irritate me or stress me out’ and planning a family meeting. Children can participate in this process too. Lay it all out on the table and ask that crucial and game-changing question: how can we work together to ensure that we don’t hurt each other’s feelings and enjoy each other’s company over the holidays?
Last week’s edition of Wednesday Wisdom was all about grief and responses to it - we heard from families who aren’t just processing loss but also anticipating it due to family members’ age or illness. For these families, this family audit exercise may be even more important. The idea of a family holiday being one’s last or of a family meal being held without a loved present can trigger a medley of emotions and feelings. These families can perhaps name the difficulty ahead of time and validate each other’s feelings more acutely; “I know this year will be difficult, but if we acknowledge that, it’s a good start”. “I can understand that this year we will be feeling sad about gran, but how can we remember or mention her during the day in a way that feels comfortable and joyful?”. Children always have brilliant ideas. By opening up the discussion ahead of time, we all stand a better chance of having a pleasant day together.
Now, let’s think about your emotions around family occasions. Who are you dreading bumping into and why? Who will likely say something that might rile you? Which topics need to be out of bounds in the interests of peace and harmony? We can’t control others, so think about all the elements you can control. What can you do or say ahead of time that might just soften the dread? What tools do you have in your toolbox for when you start to ‘see red’? How can you develop the kind of empathy for others that reduces judgement?
Some tips: be clear on arrival and end times for family events. Be clear on who is driving and who isn’t. Be clear to your children on what your expectations are of them in terms of manners and behaviour. Be clear with yourself that you deserve a day off, time together with loved ones and to feel relaxed. Be clear that you have worked hard all year and deserve to laugh, let your hair down and do more of what you love. Set aside time with dear friends, as well as family; those who charge you up, make you feel reassured, loved and cared for. Book those FaceTime chats with those who live far away.
For any parent out there excited about their young adults arriving back from university or college, can I suggest you expect a new normal? It can be tough to emancipate for term-time only to arrive back into the cocoon of family life where we are treated like a teen again. We have to find a way of gently recognising that these children have grown up and we may need to find ways of helping them renegotiate their place within family life. What worked before may not work now, and that’s ok. Talk to those older children about how you are feeling, how they’re feeling and plan accordingly. Be flexible and open-hearted. Expect that they will want to spend time with friends or new partners, often elsewhere. C’est la vie!
Whilst we are entering the season of goodwill and collective celebration, remember there are millions of people (some of them are in our own families) that feel lonely. Loneliness is on the rise amongst children and adults in our society.
Loneliness is linked with low wellbeing and it can feel debilitating. It differs from person to person, but loneliness might leave you feeling physically depleted, unable to think clearly, sad, anxious, or even very fatigued. Chronic experiences and feelings of loneliness can actually have far reaching consequences. Dr Mhairi Bowe, a psychologist from Nottingham Trent University, notes that loneliness “can be more harmful to health than well-known behavioural health risks such as smoking and obesity” - a fact which might surprise you. The festive period, synonymous as it is with convivial events, parties, togetherness and connection can be a particular challenge for some. According to one UK survey, 17% of people feel more lonely over Christmas, although many are too embarrassed to admit it.
It is a myth that the elderly experience loneliness more than young people. Just under one in 10 people aged 16 to 29 reported feeling lonely often or always, according to an analysis of recent Office for National Statistics (ONS) data by the Campaign to End Loneliness – the highest level of all age groups. In fact, during the Covid lockdown, when loneliness levels rose among all age groups, young people aged between 16 and 24 were the demographic most likely to report feeling lonely. There is some good news. It might be heartening to know that the impact of lockdown was complex and, counterintuitively, some young people (one report suggests about one in three) actually thrived during this period, reporting less loneliness, feeling less left out and experiencing better relationships with close friends and family.
UK Government strategy describes loneliness as, “A subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship. It happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want.” During adolescence, there is an expectation that young people are making lots of friends and having fun, something which may exacerbate feelings of loneliness for those with fewer friends than others. As Professor Andrea Wigfield, Director of the Centre for Loneliness Studies, notes, comparison to others plays a part in loneliness and social media and FOMO (fear of missing out) may play a role.
One practical way that we can help to tackle children’s loneliness is to remind them who is there for them, consider strengthening our own connection with them and encourage them to seek social connections through activities. Using the word ‘lonely’ more regularly and surfacing discussion about it might also reduce any perceived stigma. Open up conversations more generally in family life. You could share a time or experience when you felt lonely. Perhaps you were away from home for the first time, or you arrived in a new place without knowing anyone and had to rely upon your social skills to drive new connections. Perhaps you have felt lonely in a relationship or following a bereavement. You might refer to celebrity stories of isolation to illustrate how wealth and fame don’t make people immune to loneliness. When we open up conversations about loneliness, we can help our whole family name these different and difficult feelings.
We understand that adults can feel lonely too. A Mental Health Foundation report into loneliness notes that, whilst anyone can be lonely, risk factors include “being widowed, being single, living alone, being unemployed and having a long-term health condition”. There are many organisations that can help. The Red Cross offers free community workshops on loneliness, and there are numerous peer to peer support services available including Web of Loneliness and various befriending organisations.
There is also room to encourage older teens to think about how they can best alleviate or reduce loneliness for those around them. Could your teens visit an elderly neighbour for weekly chat or play a musical instrument to someone living alone? Could they reach out to someone at school who they suspect is lonely? In cultivating their natural altruism and activating a sense of agency, we can help them to promote social connectedness for others, alleviate suffering, and bolster their own self-esteem in the process; a definite win-win.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
If you think that a family audit is required before the festive season really gets underway, we have some resources that will help. Our Family Audit Template provides a useful framework for family meetings (if younger children are getting involved, we also have a version specifically for them). If you find opening up these kinds of conversations a challenge, our tips will give you some ideas. If you’d like to cultivate connection within the family, why not try our Let’s Connect activity. If you want to map out all the things that you can control, versus those you can't, use our template.
In Tooled Up, we’ve developed resources which provide helpful strategies for connecting with others and being a good friend to those around us. Our 10 Strategies for Making Friends can be used by people of all ages. Why not also encourage younger children to think about what it means to be a good friend with our Yay or No Way Friendship Quiz or arm them with some ideas to help them get along better with their peers? If your child does feel lonely and you’re struggling to open up conversations about it, our book list might help. We’ve also got a comprehensive list of support groups and services should you be worried about your child’s, or your own, mental health.
Our Coping Menu provides suggested activities for children experiencing difficult emotions: it could be a valuable go-to if loneliness hits or tempers fray over the Christmas break. You might feel the holidays are already packed with activities and obligations, but it can still provide structure and calm to think about what you’d like to achieve. Our School Holiday Planner can help, and is a great way to ensure there’s time for recharging batteries and maintaining connections and friendships.