‘Tis the Season for Button Pressing: Being a Grown-Up at Christmas

Do you become one of those grown-ups at Christmas?

Yes, it’s that time of the year! The time when we may be lucky enough to get some time off work and spend it with family. It’s kind of ironic, that the very things we take time out to celebrate at Christmas are often the things we let bring out the worst in us.

Christmas is a time for button-pressing. We all have psychological buttons that are learned, for one reason or another, during our upbringing. Our buttons are triggered by ideas, looks, situations, images, memories or words and, once pressed, seem to bypass our logical thinking and have us acting with fury, alarm, or withdrawal when perhaps there is no need for these reactions. Buttons may have worked for us in some way some time ago, but they can linger and cause all sorts of issues when we perhaps should have rewired them long ago. Christmas, gathering with family and friends and enjoying some time out of routine is rife for button exposure.

We need to be on the lookout – Perfectionism buttons, family buttons, worry, grief, separated families and young adult family issues can all rise to the surface and bring out really poor behaviour in some of the most mature grown-ups.

Christmas can sometimes see people trying to outdo themselves (or each other) in delivering some delightful and delicious Christmas perfection. It seems to be one day of the year that we raise expectation of how things “should” be and yet we also try to celebrate. That’s a lot of pressure. We expect our children to have fun with all of their additional treats and we also expect them to behave. That’s a lot of expectation. If, we take away the boundaries, routine and predictability and we add in all of that “sometimes” food and drink then we can expect for kids’ behaviour to be more unsettled than usual. Perhaps let go of the concept of a perfect Christmas and replace it with a great opportunity to be with people who are important to us and do all of those “sometimes” things we might deny ourselves at other times of the year.

Be prepared for some behavioural fallout – and not just from the kids!!!!!

Spending time with certain sibling, in-laws or uncles can definitely mean that Christmas is a time for family button pressing. Adults holding in long held resentments and old buttons pressed years ago are fraught with dangers for grown-ups behaving badly. Are you going to model the kind of adult you’d like your child to be when your relatives and in-laws press old buttons in you? Are you really going to steam inside about who doesn’t eat quinoa salad? Are you going to let “that look” or “that tone of voice” cause an internal explosion in you that your children know only too well? Christmas is also a time for children to get a sense of who they belong to and who they are important to on a broader scale than just the people they live with on a day to day basis. If Christmas has a spiritual meaning for you, then it’s a day to enjoy this. If Christmas has no religious meaning for you, perhaps it’s time to consider what Christmas means to you in terms of the values that are important to you.

Be careful if you are planning on coping with Christmas day with alcohol. Alcohol can disinhibit you so if you are choosing to hold things in then too much Christmas cheer in a glass, can or stubby may erode your plans.

If you have lots of buttons that may get pushed over Christmas then perhaps you could try something new. Perhaps you could try becoming more of an observer. This means, trying to take a broader perspective of the day, like it’s a TV show or a movie set. Step back and watch things unfold rather than pop yourself at the middle of everyone’s behaviour on the day. Think about the happenings like they are a script that you have little control over, rather than a day where you are the target or are responsible for the feelings of everyone else on the day. Even if you just try it for a moment – “I knew she’d say that – that’s hilarious that I could so see that coming”. I don’t recommend that you laugh out loud at each predictable moment, but it’s perfectly okay to have a warm smile to yourself.

If you really don’t want to be with someone on Christmas day, then perhaps you should check in with the reasons why you are spending time with these people. Is it because you think it’s the “right” thing to do? Is it because it will make someone else who is really important to you happier? Again, knowing the values that are really important can help guide your behaviour, your reactions and your decisions. I think perhaps Christmas, rather than New Year, could be a time for resolutions. It is much easier to keep a goal or promise to yourself and others for a day than for an entire year.

Be careful not to travel back in time and go with those old buttons when they are pressed. You are an adult and you have much more available in your coping stores than you ever did as a child.

Spending time with family members can take you back in time to your childhood buttons. Try to stay present and focus on being the healthy grown up that you have become and interact with others according to your adult values – not the righteous, tit for tat, “it’s not fair” values of childhood.

In addition to avoiding time travel, Christmas is also a good time to check in with your catastrophe scale. Try to keep your reactions an appropriate size based on how important or life threatening the issues really are. If someone else has also brought a potato salad, is that really a catastrophe? If someone says that the roast is too dry, is that a disaster? Sometimes it can help to think of others who are less fortunate. Indeed, some people have values that see them making sure they actively work to do something for the less fortunate at Christmas. Some volunteer to help with meals or to deliver presents.

For those who have lost a loved one during the year, the first Christmas can be particularly difficult. There are no rules that say you cannot grieve on Christmas. In fact, it might be useful to actually make some formal time to grieve on Christmas day. Many families stop off at the cemetery or the crematorium. If an important person has passed away, it may be nice to keep some of their traditions going. My grandfather used to jump into the swimming pool with all of his clothes on most Christmases. We don’t always jump in to the pool fully clothed in remembrance of him, but the legend of this often comes up on Christmas day as part of a fun legacy that remains for him.

For those blended families with children who have care shared across locations, Christmas can bring additional issues. Who gets whom for which part of the procession of gift giving/food sharing moments? Why not spread them out over time? There is too much emphasis placed on Christmas being a calendar date rather than Christmas being a festival of celebration. Separated families who measure fairness on a per calendar basis really need to have a re-think (see my previous blog).

Christmas is a day where you to get to do a lot of those “not just now I’m too busy” things and eat a lot of those “sometimes” foods. Be sure to actually spend time with your children. It helps if they have scored presents that teach them turn taking, winning and losing, how to laugh at themselves and when to say, “That’ll do, I’m out”.

Go easy on the young adults in your extended family. As young adults, your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews will be making choices about which relatives, in-laws, family, friends they choose to be with. This is often a liberating time. They should be supported to spend the day doing whatever is in line with their values and they should not be made to feel guilty for not spending time with you on Christmas Day.

Remember, your children listen to the whole of you – not just your words – you need to be sure that you are not passive aggressive in your conversations with them about their Christmas choices because you are a little wounded that they have chosen to be elsewhere this year.

Before you know it, children will be voting with their own feet at Christmas time. Despite my warnings about time travel, they will take with them the ghosts of Christmases before them.

You may well be someone’s in-law or lonely uncle one day. It’s in your best interest to model the kind of Christmas behaviour that you would like in the future.

So, tips?

  • Don’t try to make Christmas perfect or make too many rules in your head for how Christmas “should” be and how people “ought to” behave. Get in touch with the values that are important to you, not the rules. Remember that your values may not be the same as everyone else’s values. Some useful values exercises can be found here.
  • Enjoy the “sometimes” food and activities. Change of routines, different venues, relaxing of boundaries will mean an increased likelihood of meltdowns in younger children. Prepare your mobile meltdown capabilities (recognise possible triggers or warning signs and think about how you might react to contain meltdowns in someone else’s home). Make it clear what behaviour crosses a line and react in a way that is true to your parenting values. Don’t be too worried about others’ reacting to your parenting – they may well have different values to you (remember the screen play/movie set technique)
  • No time travel – if you know there are old buttons that might be vulnerable, prepare to go with the distancing, screen-play, script writing, camera person role/technique rather than pop yourself in the lead actor role.
  • Remember to pack your catastrophe scale – don’t make little things into giant problems
  • Time trumps gifts – not clock time (“you had them three hours last year so this year I should have them three hours”). Time should be about sharing activities, not watching the clock or calendar.

Remember your children are watching…always watching. Try to keep your behaviour in line with the values you want them to hold central to their lives.

One day, you might even get invited to Christmas at their place…if you behave!

Coping with change: Will everything be okay?

It has been said on numerous times in many contexts and by wiser and more eloquent beings than me (?I/?myself), that there’s nothing as constant as change. Change is inevitable. Indeed, a life without change would be catastrophic because unless we adapt, alter or develop (all changes) then our very survival is at risk. Perhaps less alarming, but also true, is that without change, life would be just be terribly boring! So, why, then, do so many people find change difficult?

Change can rock the most grown up and mature among us. Our general day to day anxieties are allayed by predictability and routine. When we mess with the predictable things in life, our brains can become a little more hyper-aware of possible new threats. Of course, there are some variables which will determine how different adults cope with perceived threat and this variability is exactly the same for children.

We know that the sort of change that might upset someone has to do with how important they think the change is. When I talk to children about change, I usually like to talk to them about the changes they have already made, without even noticing – the change in their height, their change out of wearing nappies, and the change when they used to like Thomas the Tank and now it’s Minecraft. The change from not being able to tie laces, to be able to tie them in the dark or with your eyes closed. We actually cope with many changes on a day to day basis and it is good to remind ourselves and each other about our history of coping with change.

The beliefs someone has about how important the changes are will affect their coping and, as we know, the things that are threatening to individuals vary from person to person.

When it comes to change, if someone thinks that the change will bring more negative consequences than positive one, then it’s clear that they may not be so happy or excited about it. We need to check on what people are predicting may happen and weigh up those chances realistically and keep them in perspective.

What is important to an individual child, and therefore, what might be most threatening, will likely depend on their age. A pre-school aged child will place more importance on themselves and their immediate care givers. They may be more possessive about objects. Primary aged children place more emphasis on friendships and school happenings. Moving schools can be a big change for a primary schooler and a change of classroom teacher can be a big thing. As children move into their teens, we see that peers and friendships start to be the factors that influence the changes that might be tolerated and the changes that may be harder to cope with. As young adults, more important change has to do with leaving home, finances, careers and perhaps even more “serious” relationships ( but, please don’t tell younger children that their relationships aren’t “serious”).

A child’s ability to cope will also be affected by their mental health and their mental health will be affected by their ability to cope. If your child is struggling with mental health issues, you may find that they become even more distressed about changed. Their already stretched bank of coping goes into over draft. Children who have a history of poor coping will likely need additional, and perhaps professional help, to assist them to manage big change.

Research psychologists have long been looking into the different ways that children cope in different scenarios and they have devised various tools and measures. Adults tend to have a wider array of coping that comes with having full independence, being more mobile, and having more say in their day.

Let’s face it, most children cannot rely on alcohol, shopping, over-working or affairs to get them by, but children are observing adult coping all of the time and they are taking all of this information in, even if they are not consciously aware of it.

According to researchers, children in “their middle years” tend to cope with many problems by using five main categories of coping:

  1. Support seeking – asking others for help and depending on the child’s age this could be asking parents, asking a teacher, asking friends, or asking any random stranger on social media.
  2. Humour – laughing or joking about the change
  3. Active coping – coming up with stregies to fix perceived problems and putting these strategies into action.
  4. Acceptance – acknowledging the change and getting on board with it
  5. Avoidance – trying not to think or have to deal with any aspect of the change whilst perhaps just hoping it goes away – a real “head in the sand” way of dealing with things

Gender seems to have an influence on coping styles with boys more likely to use humour and girls more likely to seek support. Children also tend to use humour when they think things are not very important and they will more likely seek support from others if they think it is an important problem.

Some interesting research has also discovered that a child’s coping style is affected by how their parents feel about the expression of emotion. Some parents believe that emotions are wrong or bad. Other parents might think it okay to express positive feelings, but they are less okay about encouraging children to express their negative or sadder feelings. Still other parents encourage healthy expression of all emotions and believe that all feelings are good– positive or negative. What the researchers found was that children who were raised by parents who believed that all emotions were good were more accepting. Their children more easily accepted changes. The children who had parents who did not believe that negative emotions could be good were less likely to seek support because they believed that their feeling should not be discussed or expressed.

Some parents are high in expressing negative emotions – these parents may tend to have more parent-centred rather than child-centred goals and they may be too stressed to teach their children about emotions.

If we want to maximise a child’s coping potential, we need to create healthy spaces where they can get a balanced view of the change and where they are able to talk about the bad feelings as well as the good.

So, some tips:

  • Consider the impact the change will have on your child. I’m not saying “never change because it will upset your kids”. On the contrary, change brings opportunity, but it does also bring stress. Moving house, arranging to blend a family, and changing jobs are all very stressful tasks, but you need to manage your stress sufficiently to not skew your child’s view of the change. Remember, too much negatively expressed emotion about the change is your warning sign or your “note to self” that you need to do something more active to cope.
  • In your list of busy jobs associated with the change, make time to check in with your children. Don’t expect that they won’t cope. Just enquire about what is going on for them in relation the change.
  • Don’t assume that the bit about the change that is worrying you might be the same bit that is worrying them. Remember, the things that are important to us will vary, especially with age.
  • Provide children with as much real information about the change as you can. Like adults, without sensible information, they will tend to worry about worse case scenarios if they don’t have the facts. You could even give them some things to research about the change. If they are moving towns, you might want to ask them to research where the local ballet schools or football clubs might be.
  • Encourage your child to express their feelings about the change. If they express some negative feelings or some worries, don’t just try to override these with the positive feelings. You need to acknowledge (listen and feedback so they know you have heard them) their negative feelings. Encourage them to actively address any of their concerns if they can to minimise the impact and then consider the possible positives. It might be that they will miss their friends so don’t just override them and say that they’ll make new ones. Instead, listen, acknowledge the negative feelings, discuss ways they might say goodbye, ways they might stay in touch, and then, perhaps, the possibility of other friends.
  • Establish a new, predictable routine as quickly as you can to help soothe anxiety.
  • If your child relies heavily on social support, make sure they have some. If they have supportive friends, a family relative they lean on, or some other supportive adult, encourage them to spend some more time with them.
  • If you suspect you child maybe relying too heavily on social media for support, check. Be sure they know the health places online that they can find help. Kidshelp line has a chat space.


If you are a psychologist or mental health professional working with a child about coping, you might consider the COPE a handy tool to add to your toolbox.