Surviving the Holidays with your Family

In my practice, I experience an uptick in traffic right after major holidays.  What's going on?  Does Christmas stress people out?  Yes, sometimes, but mostly it's that enforced family time!  

We often travel to stay with our families, which means we're together 24 hours a day for several days.  This usually leads to too many people, not enough space, not enough sleep, and more alcohol than usual.  

And guess what - most of us have changed since we were children!  

We no longer fit into the roles that our family expects.  Perhaps you were the peacemaker in your family when you were a child, but now you refuse to appease your racist uncle.  Maybe you were the serious brainy one, but you've discovered that you tell a pretty good joke.  It's normal to realize that you don't fit together as a family in the same way you used to.  

A healthy family takes this in stride and adjusts (albeit with some discomfort) to changes.  You'll be teased about it, but your family will adapt in time.  You have the right to be accepted for who you are now (but you still have to follow the rules of your host unless you want to go stay at a hotel or leave the house).  

An unhealthy family with very rigid roles will not adjust to these changes.  This family will try to force you back into the role you held as a child, or maybe the role they wish you occupied.  If this doesn't work, an unhealthy family will keep trying instead of learning and adapting.  Eventually, you or your family may experience rejection of the new person you've become.  

You may have recently realized that your family had some unhealthy patterns of behavior that you're not willing to reenact.  Maybe the way that your parents handle conflict is cruel, and you've decided you don't want to be a part of this.  If this is the case, your holidays may become fraught and you might be anticipating some hard conversations.  

How do you handle this?  

  • Remember your rights as an adult.  You are free to leave a family gathering if you feel uncomfortable.  You can take a break by walking around the block.  You can refuse to participate in activities with which you do not agree.  You have the right to be treated with respect even if others disagree with your views.  
  • Be respectful of others.  You don't have to agree in order to be polite.  
  • The old advice about avoiding talking about sex, politics, and religion is still pretty good!  Think up conversation topics before you go.  Sports, trivia, family photo albums, a new book or movie you liked, or asking about everyone's hobbies and kids and pets are usually safe.  
  • Keep an eye on your alcohol consumption.  Just because you aren't driving anywhere doesn't mean you don't want your wits about you.  You're much more likely to get into an argument if you've been drinking.  You may think you need that wine to listen to Aunt Phoebe's arthritis complaints, but what you really need is a clear head.  
  • If you are the host/ess, you get to make the rules!  You can forbid cursing in your house, you can choose not to serve meat at Thanksgiving, and you can tell people that it's time to go.  Just because someone is older than you are doesn't mean s/he's more important or more powerful.  
  • If you think there might be trouble, stay at a hotel.  It's more expensive, but you're not trapped in the house if things go south.  Rent a car so that you can leave if you need to.  
  • You are not required to justify or explain your life choices.  You can simply say (over and over again), "That's the decision I've made," and bring up something else.  
  • Holidays may not be the time to have the heavy conversation you need to have with your family members.  You may want to wait until they don't have houseguests, or until you move past all the holiday parties and responsibilities.  

If you're having trouble contemplating or surviving the holidays with your family, Sweetwater Counseling offers single-session troubleshooting and longer-term therapy to deal with family problems.  Wouldn't you like to look forward to the holidays again?