Dear Santa, please help

Ready for a `Waltons' family Christmas? Thought not. LIZ BESTIC asked three experts to do some festive trouble-shooting

Season of goodwill? Shut in a house for 24 hours minimum with your parents/in-laws/ children/siblings? It's not so hard to love each other 364 days a year from a distance, but nothing is more certain to put a spark in the tinderbox of emotions than the disappointing presents, alcohol frenzy and proximity that is the family Christmas. But if the prospect of the festive season fills you with dread, take heart. Real Life asked three Christmas agony experts to offer their solutions to such seasonal dilemmas.

Susan Quilliam is a relationship psychologist and the author of Stop Arguing and Start Talking (Vermilion, pounds 6.99). Matt Whyman is the Love Doctor for Bliss magazine and has written Wise Guide: Divorce and Separation (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 3.99). Lynda Field is a counsellor, psychotherapist and best-selling author. Her latest book is 60 Ways to Feel Amazing (Element, pounds 1.99).

CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF DIVORCED PARENTS

"Three years ago my parents divorced. The first Christmas at home was a nightmare. Dad came back to the house and both of them pretended everything was all right when it obviously wasn't. The second year my sister and I spent Christmas with Mum and were grudgingly allowed to visit Dad on Boxing Day. This Christmas Mum promised to let us stay with Dad but now she has changed her mind. It's so unfair. I was looking forward to going to Dad's and making Christmas really special for him. Since splitting up with mum he has lived in a pokey flat on his own. He hasn't got a girlfriend and he's lonely. Mum is in a new relationship and doesn't need us at home. My sister says she doesn't want to rock the boat and doesn't mind staying with mum. But I feel I am being made to choose between them. I love Mum but I miss Dad so much it's tearing me apart."

Chrissie, aged 16, from Colchester

Matt says: When teenagers talk about their experiences of divorce, Christmas is the one time of the year when they despair of their parents. Kids have built-in bullshit detectors and it's just not worth putting on a charade; if it's all smiles in the sitting room and a shouting match in the kitchen they will soon see through it. Obviously you can't be in two places at once but you can divide the day or be in one place one day and another the next. As for her mum, she is testing her children's affections to the limit and it's not on. Chrissie needs to tell her that she is not happy about the way she is playing her off against her dad and her mum has to understand it's not about who's best and who comes first.

Susan says: Chrissie clearly loves both her parents dearly but this Christmas she has to be even-handed about it. She shouldn't punish her mum for going back on her agreement but she should lay down the party line for years to come. That means dividing Christmas straight down the middle. In future she should go to her dad for Christmas morning and to her mum in the afternoon or vice versa. As far as this year is concerned, she needs to tell her mother she is not going to stop loving either parent just because the other one wants her to. She mustn't start blaming her mum or favouring her dad. Just because her mum behaves badly, it shouldn't mean she has the right to behave badly too.

Lynda says: Chrissie needs to tell her parents that they are tearing her apart by forcing her to make such difficult choices between them. Then she should make a clear blueprint for future Christmases. Separated families often struggle with a lack of routine but new flexible plans can help to heal the hurt. Importantly for Chrissie, she will soon be able to step into a new independent role where she feels confident enough to state her feelings and let go of her need to be responsible for her parents.

IN-LAWS WANT TO TAKE OVER

"My wife and I have been invited to stay with her parents this Christmas and, as my father-in-law has been unwell lately, my wife said yes. The problem is I don't think we can make it work. My mother and father- in-law are both in their late 70s and have very rigid ideas about Christmas. They will insist on going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve and will expect our two children, aged five and seven, to go too. They have their Christmas lunch at one o'clock on the dot and insist on opening their presents after lunch, whereas we end up opening them at about five in the morning. I just can't see how we are going to blend the two sets of rituals without having a full-blown row. I am dreading it.

Jonathan from Sidcup

Matt says: Jonathan's idea of Christmas is just as rigid if not more so than his parents-in-law's. He needs to loosen up and respect their idea of Christmas a bit more. OK, the kids may come bounding into their bedroom at 5am but he could easily organise things so that some presents are held back for later. If there's no religious problem with midnight mass he should ask the kids if they want to go. Turn it into an adventure with the promise of a present to open when they come home. Where's his Christmas spirit?

Susan says: James needs to negotiate with his parents-in-law so that their rituals are respected and the kids can still have a good Christmas. Maybe the children could go to a morning service if granny is keen to see them in church, and they can open their presents early, while the grown-ups wait until after lunch.

Lynda says: Jonathan is expecting the worst and the way he is going will probably get it. He should encourage the adults to talk and reach a compromise. The grandparents are not going to force the issue of taking the kids to church. (Remember they have had children too!) Why not open stockings in the morning and save presents for after lunch? He should adopt a more positive approach so that everyone can enjoy themselves. After all this is the season of goodwill!

DON'T WANT TO GO HOME

"I am 19 and in my final year at university. My parents have always loved to do the whole traditional Christmas bit. My mum decorates the whole house beautifully, makes a lovely wreath for the front door and puts handmade decorations on the tree. But this year my friends are renting a cottage in Cornwall and have asked me to stay. The problem is how do I tell my mum? I am an only child and although Mum has always encouraged me to be independent I know how much it means to her to have me at home at Christmas. The truth is I find it really boring now and want to be with people of my own age. How can I let her down lightly?"

James from London

Matt says: Some parents find it hard to let go but as their kids get older and have more responsibilities and commitments, they start to develop their own ideas of what Christmas is about - and very often it is quite different from the family's. James's mum is very entrenched in her ideas. However, James has left it far too late this year to drop this bombshell on his mother. Even so, he should let her know how he feels; that it is no reflection on his affection but next year he wants to explore his own life a bit more.

Susan says: I don't think James can pull the rug out from under his mum with a few days' notice. What he can do is make it clear that this is the last Christmas he will spend with the family for a while. It's fine for him to break away as long as he explains that he loves his mum very much. His mum needs to wise up and recognise that she has to let James gradually and slowly fly the nest and then he will come back.

Lynda says: If James goes to Cornwall he will be wracked with guilt. It would be far better to go home and talk his feelings through with his mother. It is sometimes hard for parents and children to let go of each other at Christmas because it is such a symbolic time of year. But he may be in for a surprise. His parents may just have been waiting for this moment to book their long-awaited Christmas break in the sun. James should be prepared to discover that parents can change too.

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