Building Family Connection at Christmas

Each year around Christmas time, conversations with our clients turn to the predictable stress of time with family over the holidays. While Christmas can be a time of reunion with friends, families and loved ones, all-too-familiar family tensions may occur. These include the pressure to be “ready” for Christmas, managing loss and grief or the divorce of parents, or being part of a new or blended family. Factors commonly associated with poor mental health at other times of the year, such as workplace stress and financial pressure, are also more prevalent during the Christmas period. So, what can we do to help reduce stress and conflict over Christmas, and make the holiday more enjoyable for all?

One way to enhance enjoyment this season is to establish meaningful family rituals and traditions. Family rituals are repeated special events and symbolic acts that are developed throughout a family’s history (Fiese, 2006). Sezer, Norton, Gino, and Vohs (2016) found that families who enact family rituals at Christmas time (e.g., family dinner, tree decoration, playing games) have more positive holiday experiences. Rituals can create and reinforce family identity, serving as a buffer to the potential downsides of Christmas by increasing family closeness and involvement (Sezer et al., 2016). Notably, a growing body of research has investigated the influence of family rituals on adolescents’ psychological adjustment, health, and well-being outcomes (e.g., Fulkerson et al., 2006). We believe family rituals are important for building family bonds as they can:

• Help us to stay connected. The demands of life pull us in many directions, but rituals and family traditions provide family time during which we can reconnect and stay close, despite the upheavals that occur in life. They promote a sense of belonging, interpersonal communication, and shared memories.
• Offer stability and order. Children, and many adults, thrive when they know what comes next and what is expected of them. Because rituals are predictable, they help us create stable, orderly environments for our families.
• Teach practical skills. Family rituals allow us to pass on important skills to the next generation; for example, how to prepare traditional goods, how to set a formal table, and how to practice hospitality.
• Help us make sense of the passage of time. Young children do not really understand the concept of months and years, so rituals that are associated with the various seasons are one of the first ways they begin to make sense of time. As children grow older, they participate in new ways in family traditions (e.g., staying up late on Christmas Eve). For older adults, rituals can keep them orientated as they remember when traditions began, and pass this information on to other family members.
• Help us deal with loss and trauma. When we face traumatic circumstances such as the loss of a loved one, rituals give us a blueprint for how to act, providing a sense of comfort.
• Connect us to our past. We feel connected to our families of origin when we engage in traditions that our families have practiced for generations. Rituals can allow us to impart family values, demonstrating them to the next generation in tangible ways.

We hope that your family can connect through the use of familiar, or even new rituals and traditions, this Christmas. From all of us at Bower Place, we wish you a Merry Christmas and a safe and happy New Year.