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.
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.