Sustaining Healthy Family Life: Tips For Overcoming The Holiday Stress Blues

Few of us are immune to holiday stress. It doesn’t help that Thanksgiving and Christmas are so close together. For many people, it’s like getting a second-wham of anxiety and disappointment before you recover from the first one at Thanksgiving.

Because our American culture still promotes the image of the happy family with the white picket fence, we often assume the ideal family exists–even if we know that these families, too, have holiday difficulties. Holiday movies increase our disappointment. Oh, they might start out with family feuds, misunderstood children and unacceptable mates, but all these issues get resolved by the end of the film.

In reality, most families have a few issues that are unresolved. What may be stressful to one family may not be to another, yet despite the differences, the top holiday stresses are familiar to most of us. What can you do to make the holidays a happier time? Everyone’s situation is unique, but here are the top problems and solutions. All names and identities have been changed.

1. Unrealistic expectations of happiness, joy and acceptance

The holidays are supposed to be a joyous time. If you have unresolved issues, hopes run high that the festivities will propel family members to act with greater kindness and emotional responsibility. Unfortunately, holiday time is not necessarily the best time to try to settle grievances or have one of those long, heart-to-heart talks with a family member. In fact, you might end up with nothing more than a lot of words and raised hopes—with little follow-up after the holidays are over.

The first thing to do is to lay the groundwork for a renewed relationship long before the holidays. Start by sending emails or birthday and anniversary cards. You want to send the message that you care about them and that you have changed.

It’s usually not a good idea to play a game of history where you review your past complaints. A long family meeting where you air your past anger won’t necessarily result in changing other family members’ behavior or attitudes about you. More effective change usually comes from your acting differently—and surprising them with the new you. Acting unpredictable in a positive way is a potent strategy for shaking up family members’ old views and treatment of you.

For example, if you’ve been regarded as the wayward child, you can demonstrate your maturity by telling the family about your life changes and speaking to each relative about things that are important to each of them. Even though it can take months for attitudes and behavior to change, when you act in a different and positive way, the family is more likely to notice you’ve changed.

Of course, if there is a timely hot topic that has to be addressed, then speak to other family members about ways to coordinate a strategy. For example, a common issue is how to care for a close relative who has dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Some families divide up the tasks of researching doctors, nursing homes and other care facilities in the area. Family members then use emails to remain in touch.

2. Rigid rituals

Rituals sustain the family emotional glue. They provide an easy format to recall and chart family growth, connection and cooperative decision-making. In addition, the holidays give families an opportunity to celebrate “who we are and why we matter.”
Later, as you mature, these family events provide a forum for testing your maturity, feelings and assumptions about yourself and others. You can assess family members with your own eyes and come to different or refined conclusions about how your family operates. You can forge your own identity and role as well as establish resources in the family through selected people.

However, rituals are often unresponsive to change. Family ruts are easy to get into. For example, mother always sits here, father there. It’s amazing to see the power of even these simple acts. Yet, not everything can stay the same. Family members are lost and added through death, marriage, birth and feuds. Life demands flexibility. Rather than complain about a ritual, recruit the key person in the solution. Be prepared to provide a reason and ideas.

For example, no one wants to hurt Cousin Dee’s expectations about hosting the Thanksgiving feast. However, now the family is too large to fit into her dining room. If you have a better idea, discuss it with other members, including the person whom Cousin Dee responds to with the least defensiveness. Then, have this person seek Dee’s advice about some related issue such as how to arrange the seating order or what chairs to use.

If you are that designated person, act perplexed about the best way to accommodate the growing family. You might mumble about moving chairs or using the kitchen. You might even say things such as: “Gee, it’s too bad Cousin Tina hasn’t offered to have the Thanksgiving meal at her house. Then we could have the next day brunch all day at your house, where it’s more fun and casual. Do you think Cousin Tina would want us messing up her new carpet?” Of course, you’ve already cleared it with Cousin Tina. The goals are to get creative and positive and to turn the key family members into key players in the solution.

Finally, take advantage of changes in the family to forge new traditions. Use events such as births, marriages, remarriages or college graduations as springboards for new gift-giving, different homes for the celebration or more flexible seating arrangements around the dining table. These changes might prompt innovative ways of sharing the holiday. For example, you can divide up Christmas into Christmas Eve, Christmas morning and Christmas dinner.

3. Issues of divorce and re-marriage: Emotional adjustment of children, acceptance of new partners or being alone

Divorce and remarriage challenge family interactions and rituals. Old feelings about former spouses or divorce in general can affect the family’s reactions. The family of the new spouse may have rituals that conflict with established ones of the other spouse. If all the major family players get along, invite the exes. This approach is especially important for young children who have trouble adjusting to being shuttled back and forth between family events.

Including the new spouse’s children can also cause problems. For example, Jesse was used to being the star athlete in the family. His mother worried that he might not welcome his new step-cousin who also happened to be the star athlete in the family of her new husband.

Solutions include making a list of potential problem areas and providing solutions. Discuss these solutions with key family members and ask for their advice. When Jesse’s new, blended family came together at Thanksgiving, his mother and step-father were smart enough to tell the parents of the cousin that they were bring video footage of Jesse’s recent top plays and to bring videos of their athlete son also. Luckily, the two boys played different positions, and each had a chance to show off his talents. The son and cousin bonded over football war stories rather than competed for the spotlight.

Being alone at the holidays can intensify issues of being single or divorced. Feeling alone in a crowd can be very painful. One way to lessen the discomfort is to stay in touch with other family members and ask them to help you by spending extra time with you or by not mentioning your divorce, for example. The goal is to take charge of your unhappiness and get remedies in motion before the holiday.

4. Absent spouses and other family members due to death, sickness or war

Every family deals with the hot topics of death and illness according to their comfort zone with uncomfortable feelings. Reactions range from avoidance to healthy grief to reverence and idealization.

For example, in Renee’s family, no one dared mention her grandfather who recently died in a knife fight in a federal prison. He was the shame of the family. Yet, the silence about him prodded the younger grandchildren to ask why they didn’t receive the candy basket that grandpa sent every year. Renee said the scrape of chair legs and the clink of forks filled the silence. The children asked again, and an aunt turned to them and said to be quiet.

In contrast, Bill’s mother died when Bill was fifteen. At the holidays, everyone mourned her loss by retelling stories about her beauty and the tragedy of her dying so young. But Bill, now an adult, recalled vivid and painful memories of his mother’s drug abuse and violent temper.

Usually, in families that mismanage grief and perceptions, there is at least one person who rings the bell of truth. Knowing when to challenge family views requires support from other family members and an accurate assessment of your family’s strengths and weaknesses. If you want to discuss taboo topics, you may first want to test the family emotional waters by finding out who shares your views and then develop a plan about what and when to broach the subject. Upsetting the Thanksgiving meal, for instance, is probably not the right moment to discuss grandpa. Instead, you might want to start email discussions about your feelings and see how the family responds.

In general, family members who are not present due to circumstances such as illness, death or war should not be overlooked. Susannah’s father served in Iraq during Christmas. The family decided to set a place for him, and everyone had a chance to say a few words about him. Susannah and her brother read letters addressed to him. At first, the ceremony brought tears, but then the reverence strengthened the family’s emotional connection to each other. Susannah said a sense of peace overrode their sorrow.

5. Overeating

You don’t have to gain weight during the holiday season. No one wants to start the New Year with yet another resolution to lose fifteen pounds. Of course, the best way to fight the sprawl is to get on an exercise and eating regiment months ahead of time. But, if you haven’t been so diligent, one solution is to start a Sensible Portion Club within your own family. Email everyone to join your club and pledge each other that you will all help each other not overeat.

If that doesn’t seem popular, recruit the few cooperative family members and agree to sit next to each other. Tracy even took the club a step further. She recruited the interested relatives, and they all agreed to have their own table—just like the kiddies table—so they could support each other’s self-control.

Don’t deprive yourself and miss out on Aunt Maya’s chocolate mudslide dessert. Instead, agree to have a taste—with nothing larger than a soup spoon.

6. Gifts: How much to spend and to whom to give them

Gift-giving, especially in large families, can be expensive, time-consuming and anxiety-provoking. Does Alyssa still like pink? Rather than being an overwhelming experience, gift-giving can become part of the family tradition. Some families put everyone’s name in a hat and each person draws the name of one person to receive a gift. Others set spending limits or agree to buy stocking stuffers and gift cards to favorite stores. Sam’s family pooled their money and took long weekends at a favorite place.

Giving to charities can also become a family tradition. Marsha’s parents decided that in order to get a gift, you first had to donate a toy, clothing or household goods to a local charity.

Don’t lose sight that gift giving should be fun and not a popularity contest. You can’t please everyone. If you assume that people are responsible for their own happiness, then you won’t waste time and energy worrying about things such as whether you should have bought Cousin Charlie a tie instead of a DVD.

7. Travel related problems: Expenses, distances, not enough time off from work

Holiday travel can often feel like a cruel test of your patience, pocketbook and perspiration. Travel delays, missed flights and cancellations are so common that people expect them now. No one can control weather and overbooking, but you can better prepare for mishaps. Here is a short list of suggestions to ease the travel burden.

Getting Married: Building Healthy Step-families

If your family is a “remarried family” or a “step-family” then you’re in good company. The experience of building a remarried or stepfamily is a common experience, not only for recovering people, but for the general population as well. There are lots of difficulties involved in putting together a stepfamily. One of the major difficulties is in the perception that a step-family is something less than desirable. Stepfamilies can be healthy.

There are some issues that are unique to stepfamilies that must be worked through to develop healthy stepfamilies. That doesn’t make stepfamilies necessarily problematic or pathological.

When we continue to hang on to the nuclear family as the “appropriate” family model, we use it to measure all families against it as the standard. When this is the case, we may emulate nuclear family attributes, behaviors, expectations that do not apply or are not appropriate for blended families. Without adequate information about effectively forming and nurturing step families, the dynamics of those new, and sometimes fragile families set them up for dissolution.

If we know that it is not typical that one’s new spouse automatically loves our child, then we may not expect that, and give him/her time to get to know and form attachments and bonding with that child. When we realize that we come from different family culture, we may be able to challenge our own notions that there is only one way to do things, and to allow for negotiation and development of new methods and traditions. When we know that children need to know a new step parent as a friend before they will accept them as a parent, we grant them to emotional room to do that and smooth the transition of blending those families. If we know that if we push them too hard and expect them to fall right into line, we may be setting them up to have conflicts with that spouse for the rest of their time in the family home.

Part of the problem is in not knowing that there is something to know. We may believe that since we were previously married, and previously parenting, that that is all we need to know. This is the biggest blunder of all. Knowing what to expect in combining families can be monumentally helpful. There is an information base from which to draw upon. “Normal” processes for forming remarried families have been described and defined. An example is that it is “normal” for ambiguous boundaries and membership issues to be present in forming step families.

Culturally, we haven’t had established patterns, rituals, or norms to help us negotiate the complex relationships involved in building remarried families. However, there are books, tapes, and counseling services available to help you negotiate these dangerous waters.

Just putting the two families together and hoping for the best is not the best approach. Denial of the probability of problems, is part of the difficulty in building remarried families.

Other major problems can occur when remarried families hold tight to the roles and rules of the old family. For example, some families draw a tight boundary around the new family, like a wagon train circling the wagons for protection against perceived threats from without. In a nuclear family the boundaries are clearer about who is part of the family and who is not. In a stepfamily a child’s non-custodial parent is still family to that child, as are all the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins connected to that side of the family. Attempts by remarried families, to cut out biological parents and other extended family members is not only unrealistic but potentially damaging to the kids. Similar potential problems develop when competition between the step-parent and the step-kids occur over affection from the spouse/biological parent.

Some helpful solutions are offered by remarried families on the front line, who are negotiating, renegotiating, defining, refining, and constructing remarried family structures that work. The have the expectation that there will not be immediate love between the step-parent and step-kids. These families foster flexibility of family boundaries. Confusion and divided loyalties from the kids are expected. They understand the importance of adults behaving cooperatively in raising kids. Permeable, flexible boundaries smooth the transition into “stepfamilyhood”. Allowing kids to come and go between the households of the biological parent and step-families as agreed upon in visitation and custody (with minimal conflict) also helps to reduce the divided loyalties that kids naturally have with divorce and remarriage.

The sense of “belonging” may take three to five years to develop fully in most of the members of the family and longer if teenagers are involved. But a new family identity can emerge.

Gender roles can be revised to effect a smoother transition. Such gender roles place responsibility for the emotional well-being of the family onto women. This can pit step-mother against step-daughter, and wife against ex-wife. Role revision can involve each parent, along with their ex-spouse taking primary responsibility for raising or disciplining their own kids.

Healthy step-families anticipate the “belonging” questions involved in blending the two families. Children want to know how they are related to these new people, who their real family members are, how they will spend time with each party, whether they will still be loved with new people to share that love, and who is “really” in charge here? These issues must be continually discussed, to provide security and comfort throughout the transition. When children express their feelings, adults respond not in defensive ways, but in open, accepting, and supportive ways–even when they feel guilty or other uncomfortable feelings. In healthy step-families children are not expected to make adult decisions, especially about where they will live, custody, visitation, or remarriage.

While developing remarried families is difficult, the transitions can be made smoother by developing realistic expectation, befriending the children before attempting to parent them, and keeping in mind that there’s enough love to go around.

Christian Relationship Help: Healthy and Unhealthy Triangulation in Dysfunctional Families

Triangulation in dysfunctional families can be healthy and unhealthy. There are many ways you can “triangulate” which simply means to get involved in a relationship between two people in an attempt to fix it. Dysfunctional family dynamics give you many opportunities to get involved some of which are okay and some not okay.

Triangulation isn’t healthy if:

It prevents two people from talking directly.
It enables a person to continue doing something wrong because of your intervention.
It increases the drama and intensity of the entire family system by escalating the conflict.
It is a pattern that you find yourself driven to do repeatedly.
It is affecting your own spiritual, emotional, or mental serenity.
You aren’t asked to intervene and do it anyway.

Triangulation is healthy if:

You truly need to stand up for a person who is unable to stand up for himself/herself = a true victim. The problem is defining who is a victim. Children can’t stand up for themselves but if they are dealing with a difficult parent who is not abusive, the child will benefit from learning how to deal with a difficult person.
You are asked to mediate and both people are open to your help.
It doesn’t hurt you.
You can choose when and where to do it for the right reasons.

One of the things you have to learn is how to let go of feeling compelled to fix the people in your life. Dysfunctional people do dysfunctional things. If you feel responsible for their relationships, you will find yourself drawn into many conflicts that are really none of your business. Proverbs 26:17 says, “Like one who seizes a dog by the ears is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own.” What will happen? He will get bit. Instead, try minding your own business when it isn’t appropriate for you to get involved.

A Dysfunctionally Functioning Family

I know I am not alone when I say that I have a dysfunctionally functioning family. Based on all the research I have done, and people I have spoken to, it is more common to have a dysfunctionally functional family rather than one that is “healthy.” When speaking to most people they were surprisingly unaware (or less inclined to admit) that their own family was dysfunctional but upon further discussion, a light bulb inevitably switched on. There are so many types and degrees of dysfunction within the family structures that exist today. That is not to say that our traditional sense of family and the ever-changing definition of it is in itself dysfunctional, I am addressing the ways in which we as family members relate to one another completely independent of our family structure.

As society redefines our nuclear family structure, so do our expectations of our role in these new family dynamics. Recent statistics now report that the divorce rate is now decreasing (as apposed to the last decade where the divorce rate stayed steady at 50%). This is not because people are staying married now and working through their issues, it is because less people are getting married. There are a rising number of couples that are cohabitating and NOT marrying with extended families, rather than the traditional definition of a family.

So lets make a clear distinction between the functional (healthy) and dysfunctional family. The distinctions aren’t complicated, but rather they are simply defined by a few characteristics. Family’s that respect one another, and exercise consideration of others within the family unit, are more likely to have a healthy functional family. A family that engages in healthy safe dialogues is more likely to be healthy. Open communication that is built on respect, trust and consideration is considered healthy and functional. The presence of clear and healthy roles for each family member also helps contribute to a healthy environment. Family structures where children have assumed a grown up role because a parent or guardian is not responsible is unhealthy and have negative consequences on everyone involved. The list goes on. Personal accountability, respect, privacy, healthy coping skills for life’s curve balls and a foundation of resilience and support are all characteristics of a healthy functioning family.

All of these characteristics affect how we relate to one another within our families. I grew up with an older brother and a single mom living in NYC. In the late 1970’s, early 1980’s that type of family structure was ‘unconventional.’ Today, not only is it ‘normal’ but it is more common than the traditional definition of family. My older brother has been married to the same woman for over 15 years, while I have been divorced and remarried. My own family structure consists of my husband’s grown children and my children that are minors. We work everyday at communicating and relating with respect and consideration. The role of the children in our house is to be children, and our role as adults is to be loving supportive parents with a solid set of values to bestow upon the children. I consider us very lucky and very healthy. However, how my family outside of my immediate household relates is completely dysfunctionally functional. There is a constant battle for respect and consideration by all of us. We all struggle to communicate in a healthy loving manner. And to make matters worse, when parts of the family get upset at each other there is a huge outburst of rage followed by an automatic removal from all communication for very long and extended periods of time, rather than working out whatever issue caused the pain. I am not sure there is a whole lot I can do to turn this dysfunctionally functional family around, all I can do is stop the ball from rolling at my doorstep and make sure that the dysfunctional behavior does not continue and penetrate future generations.