How To Survive Holiday Family Stress Do pictures like this one — of a seemingly happy, well-adjusted family — make you grit your teeth during the holidays? You’re not alone. Holidays can cause stress and anxiety.
How To Survive Holiday Family Stress
What will your family serve for the holidays this year? Ham and hysteria? Turkey and torment? Mashed potatoes and a mental breakdown? Fruitcake and…fruitcakes? Well, if you come from a dysfunctional family – like most of the rest of us – you’re going to have a taste of all of these from Thanksgiving to the New Year. According to the American Psychological Association, the reason many people dread the holidays is because what they are experiencing is so different from what is being hyped in the ubiquitous seasonal music, television and advertising. The Association’s advice is not to expect more of this time of year than of any other, and overall, be realistic.
The holidays, even if you love them, are a time of increased stress and anxiety, said Nikki Miller, a Santa Clarita Valley marriage, family and child counselor. Miller said each year she often obtains a few new clients between Christmas and the New Year.
“The stress begins at Thanksgiving,” she said. “And by the time Christmas is over, many people have reached the end of their rope.”
Courtesy and decorum are the watchwords of Miller’s strategies for dealing with family during the holidays. Many problems can be avoided if families remember these two rules. For a classic case, consider a daughter or son who comes home from college with a new significant other, and wants to sleep in the same room with him or her.
“To begin with, it’s better to make it clear beforehand what you expect in your house,” said Miller. “But it is your house and your decision.”
So if you aren’t comfortable allowing the youngsters to share a bedroom, make it clear to them from the outset, so they can make other sleeping arrangements if they want. Of course, this solution depends on the son or daughter having the courtesy to inform you in advance that they will be bringing someone home – another example of how consideration works both ways, whether you are host or guest.
If you are confronted with a situation where someone else’s lack of courtesy has resulted in a problem, don’t feel like you have to fix it. For instance, if you have invited someone to your Thanksgiving gathering, and they show up with the information that they have become a vegan since the invitation, it’s not up to you to accommodate them.
“You can politely tell them that they are welcome to go to the store and buy themselves something that they can eat. If you want you can lend them your car, but it’s not up to you to provide them with special food,” said Miller.
Regarding the boorish family member who insists on bashing others’ religion or political beliefs at the table, calmly tell them that it’s not appropriate.
Some young people use family gatherings as a time to announce big personal decisions (“I’m dropping out of college to sell maps to the stars’ homes,”) or to shock their bourgeois parents (like ostentatiously displaying new body piercings in inventive areas). Miller suggests that family members not scold or berate the college-age shock artist – in time, he or she will mature and stop trying to create scandals.
For important news, like marriage or pregnancy, Miller also suggests that they not be announced to the whole family all at once.
“It’s more thoughtful to tell your parents that you’re going to have twins than to lump them in with your second cousin and his third wife,” she said. “It’s just more considerate.”
One major source of stress is trying to do too much. Add to that the strain of travel, gift-giving, being overwhelmed with social obligations and the psychological warfare that accompanies some family gatherings, and you end up with a potentially explosive situation.
Miller’s family has come up with a novel idea for tackling the issue of having to be in too many places at once. They have settled on either being together for Thanksgiving or Christmas, and, in order to lessen problems further, they meet on the day before or after Christmas. That way family members will be available to in-law families or friends on Christmas Day.
Thanksgiving has long been the busiest travel day of the year for Americans. Miller suggests arriving where you have to be before Thanksgiving Day, but if that’s not possible, she recommends using a shuttle from the airport or just taking a cab.
“People will be busy with last-minute preparations and traffic is bound to be terrible,” she said. “Make your appearance a blessing instead of a burden.”
Abbe Goodman is a licensed marriage and family therapist with practices in the SCV and Universal City. Her basic advice is for people to lower their expectations during the holidays.
“Holiday gatherings bring up a sense of obligation that we be happy and that everything turn out perfect,” she said. “Allow yourself to have whatever feelings you’re having – give yourself permission.”
Goodman counsels holiday revelers to take a deep breath and accept that their family situation, with all its flaws and difficulties, is going to be there.
“Accentuate the positive,” she said. “Accept other’s limitations, and hope that others will extend you the same courtesy.”
A common stressor people experience during the holidays is grief over those they’ve lost, whether through death, divorce or moving away. It may be that they spent the holidays with that person, or perhaps it was around this time that the person stopped being in their lives. This grieving upsurge is one of the reasons there is usually an increase in people seeking out therapy during the holidays.
What is Goodman’s advice for people who find themselves alone at this time?
This can be particularly trying, she said, what with being bombarded with advertisements showing extended happy families who all get along. She suggests that people who are alone during the holidays remind themselves that there are others in the same situation.
“There are many people who, for various reasons, find themselves alone on the holidays,” Goodman said.
In this case, extending yourself through a little altruism can be a great way of feeling better while making others feel better, too. Feeding the homeless, helping to prepare meals or celebrations at a shelter, even volunteering to take over overworked co-workers’ shifts, all tend to reduce depression. You may well find people who are in situations similar to your own or who might simply be understanding.
“It’s good to remember that there are many people in a like situation and it can be really therapeutic to talk to others,” said Goodman.
People experience a lot of different emotions during the holidays, said Goodman. She emphasizes all feelings are normal. But on the other hand, if you’re feeling strong grief or depression, be aware that there may be deeper issues that come to the surface during the holidays.
“In these cases, it’s important to get some help,” she said.