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November 16, 2022

What you can do to Navigate Family Relationships during the Holidays

Stacey J. Drubner, JD, LICSW, MPH

It’s that time of year again. The holidays are upon us. Despite our hopes and best efforts, sometimes it’s challenging to have a stress-free holiday season with family. Two years ago, many of us were unable to meet with relatives and had concerns about their well-being. This year, we have the luxury of gathering again, but also the return of managing family dynamics.

 

Expectations are higher at the Holidays

  • Social media and Hollywood paint a picture that is not realistic or attainable
  • Time with extended family doesn’t always come often, leading to pressure for everything to be perfect

 

Several factors make us feel that we are not in control

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • The behavior and expectations of others
  • Some are “out of practice” because the pandemic represented a break from large gatherings
  • Loss/loneliness due to death, divorce, or other reasons for being apart from family
  • Disruptions to routines, such as exercise or healthy eating
  • Financial stress due to pressure and different expectations about spending and gifts

 

Don’t just Let the Holidays Happen to You – Be an Active Participant in Your Own Happiness

Chances are we will not completely resolve family issues between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, but there are things you can do to be more in control and make this time the best it can be. Consider taking a step back to anticipate potential sources of stress and conflict, and create a plan to minimize negative impacts. Being passive and hoping for the best is not typically a successful game plan. A little advance effort can make a difference.

 

Questions to consider 

  • What worries you about the holidays this year?
  • What has triggered your stress in other years?
  • What has helped you cope with stress in the past?
  • What has been unproductive or made things worse?
  • Are there things you absolutely cannot change, such as you must go to your in-law’s house for dinner?

 

Come up with a plan

  • What can you address in advance?
  • How can you respond in the moment?
  • How can you let go of things that are out of your control?

 

Before meeting with family

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Commit to managing your expectations and being realistic about the capabilities of everyone, including yourself
    – Your 90-year-old uncle is probably not going to change his personality at this point in his life
    –  Some people are not good at math or tennis; some are not good at relationships
    – Life changes for family members may alter traditions and dynamics
  • Try to resolve anticipated conflicts or negotiate with family before you meet (if it won’t make things worse)
    –  Reach for agreement on the menu, limit on spending for gifts, or time of departure
  • Identify and confirm an ally (either someone at or outside of the gathering)
  • Plan for how you will handle stressful moments
    – Wait 15 seconds before reacting
    – Be ready with a response such as “I choose to not discuss politics”
    – Have a mantra or phrase that can help you cope – “Holidays are time-limited”
    – Reach out to an ally
    – Have a ready-made excuse for a break, such as taking the dog for a walk
  • Accept that your budget may not parallel that of others and commit to being OK with what you value and can afford

 

During the Visit or Gathering

A lot of family conflicts are predictable and preventable. This is because we are aware of potential issues, but repeat the same (unsuccessful) behavior patterns in response. We know what to do, but it’s not always easy to do it . This year we offer this guidance – “Don’t take the bait.” Change the dynamic. Stop the cycle of conflict. If your siblings try to provoke you, choose not to respond in kind. You are no longer 12 years-old, but an adult who navigates life just fine outside of the presence of your family.

 

You may ask “why should I be the one to make adjustments?” Because, you want a happy holiday.

In the words of Wayne Dyer, “How people treat you is their karma; How you react is yours.”

 

Try to minimize stress and disagreement

  • Fill the time together with cooking/baking, outdoor activities or a movie
  • Avoid politics or controversial topics or be prepared to navigate these discussions by being respectful and open to all viewpoints. Search for common ground or redirect
  • As tempting as it may be, don’t engage in negative conversations with others about family members
  • Practice tolerance, compassion, and patience
    – Maybe your sister-in-law is unkind because she is overwhelmed with having a new baby and a full-time job
  • Reframe your negative thoughts
    – What about this person is special or triggers gratitude?
  • If things at the gathering start to feel stressful, use some of the tools and supports discussed above
  • Think before you react
  • It’s perfectly acceptable to walk away from a situation that cannot be resolved

 

Always Be Kind to and Take Care of Yourself

 

Much of the guidance above focuses on what you can do to maintain relationships and get along with others. This does not mean you should do this at the expense of your own well-being. If a situation is too traumatic or unhealthy for you, then give yourself permission to skip altogether, or just attend the day of the holiday or for dessert.

 

 

There are many things you can do to take care of yourself leading up to and during this season. Maximizing your own well-being can put you in a better position to manage stress and deal with challenging people and situations.

Self-care

The holidays often trigger a departure from regular routines. It can be nice to take a break from your strict diet or regular exercise, but don’t abandon healthy lifestyle goals altogether. These practices can help you cope. Consider enjoying the holidays in moderation, with attention to:

  • Exercise
    -You can take a walk wherever you are
    -Getting outside can provide a helpful release

 

Try a different perspective

Sometimes we can bolster our own well-being by engaging in things that help us to refocus in the face of our own challenges or disappointments.

 

Be mindful of financial well-being

The holidays can represent financial stress due to pressure to spend on gifts, food and entertaining. It’s not only OK but advisable to have a plan for holiday spending. This is especially important this year when regular expenses have increased significantly. It’s disappointing not to be able to spend freely, but it’s preferable not to start the New Year in debt. Instead of expensive gifts, consider small charity donations, homemade items, or pairing up for gift giving, rather than giving across the board.

 

Here are some resources that might help:

 

Help from the EAP

If you need help with navigating holiday stress, the Mass General Brigham EAP is here to help. The EAP offers free and confidential services for employees and immediate household family members. EAP records are separate from medical and HR records. Contact the EAP at 866-724-4327 or request an appointment via our online form for confidential assistance.

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