How not to go up the tree at Christmas

Families are taking courses to help beat the stress, reports Louise Jury
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THE KIDS are squabbling, the great aunt is whining and the tinsel is falling down. Tensions are rising, the mother of all rows is about to erupt. Thank God the knife is only in the turkey.

Sounds a familiar Christmas Day? You have our sympathies. But with a little bit of effort, festivities en famille could be fine. For if you fancy avoiding the worst stresses of the season, Relate, the relationship counselling service, will teach you how. Counsellor Shelagh Russell is organising a day-long seminar on how to keep your Yule cool. For pounds 35, she will help identify the hazards of trying to achieve the perfect Christmas and advise on ways of cutting out the flashpoints.

"At the beginning of each year, we look through our courses and see where people are under stress and see what we can provide for people," Ms Russell said. Christmas was an obvious time to offer extra support.

The trouble with the season of so-called goodwill is that it combines high expectations with unusual circumstances - and that is a recipe for disaster.

"You're suddenly taken out of your day-to-day life with an expectation that it's going to be wonderful. But putting several people who don't spend every day together under the same roof can be very stressful. The idea that it's supposed to be special heightens the problem."

Relate offices last year saw an increase in calls of 10 to 25 per cent by mid-January.

The Samaritans, too, received 17 per cent more calls on their national helpline in Christmas week last year - although that may have been affected by the attempted suicide of Don Brennan on Coronation Street on Christmas Day when TV stations broadcast the Samaritans' number after the programme.

This year Relate wants to provide advice beforehand. "It's a question of finding some way to smooth people through in the first place," Ms Russell said.

Among the unusual circumstances which lead to conflict during Christmas is the amount of time many husbands, for instance, spend with their immediate families, not to mention aunts, uncles and grandparents.

For newlyweds there may be a row over which in-laws should receive the first Christmas visit. Teenagers expend much angst over whether they can abandon family for the boy or girlfriend.

Ms Russell, who is divorced and has a nine-year-old son, said Relate would be encouraging people to address their unreal expectations and stop feeling guilty if they failed to create the perfect fairy tale day.

"A lot of women, for instance, spend all of Christmas in the kitchen. At the end of the day they explode. The time to deal with that possibility is now, by sitting down and working out how you can split the chores."

The key, as in most of the work Relate does, is good communication skills. "People think they're good at expressing themselves, but maybe they aren't or maybe they don't listen to the other person."

The 12 places available for the course on 29 November at Southampton City College are being snapped up already. It will be repeated if there is sufficient demand, although Ms Russell suspects that by mid-December it might be too late: the Christmas swirl will be well underway. "It looks as if it's going to be absolutely mad," she said.

The point, she added, was that there were no rights and wrongs. "What everybody wants is different. I'm` not saying that you shouldn't do all the cooking. It's a question of whether you want to. I tend to do the cooking, but that's because I really love it."