Surviving Family Dynamics During the Holiday

Holidays are a time when families gather, and distant relatives visit. A time to cook, laugh and have great conversation together.Surviving Family Dynamics During the Holiday

This should be a happy time, so why am I so stressed?

I’m sure many people have ask themselves this question. Although the holiday season can bring lots of joy, it can be mentally demanding depending on family dynamics, roles and relationships. The way in which we interact with our families can dictate our mood and the overall experience we have with them. Throughout my experience as a Licensed Mental Health Therapist, I have listened to clients describe the anxiety and pressure they feel as the holidays approach and family gatherings begin. Just the thought of engaging in family activities can be daunting and cause a spike in stress, not to mention the added financial strain and scheduling conflicts that can occur. Despite these valid points, I’ve found that the biggest stressor comes from family expectations and the stress of feeling obligated. Many people have asked, “What can I do about it?” Hopefully I’ve made it a little easier for you by creating the following list of tips to help you navigate family relationships during the holiday season.

Tips to improve your family holiday experience:

Handling family disputes: Most families have some type of lingering unresolved issues; however, the holiday dinner is not the time to bring up past problems and hash them out. Unsettled disputes can make for an uncomfortable situation in any situation. By diverting the conversational conflict until a more appropriate time and place, it will help make for a more peaceful family experience. Consider positive topics of discussion prior to engaging with estranged family members and remove yourself from situations that you feel are leading to a negative outcome. For tough family conflict, consider family therapy with relatives who are willing to participate and individual therapy for one-on-one support.

Disbursing your time evenly: Preparing for guests, cooking, cleaning and entertaining can be exhausting if time is not managed accordingly. Poor planning and trying to get everything done may negatively impact your ability to enjoy time with family and cause anxiety. Many people feel obligated to host and entertain relatives in grand style when in fact, most people are just happy to be near one another and anything extra is a bonus. If you’ve found yourself in the role of event planner and host/hostess, don’t spread yourself too thin trying to please everyone. Only take on what you feel comfortable doing and delegate tasks to keep stress levels low.

Financial planning: If you are a parent, the added financial burdens during December can back you into a corner and be difficult to get out of. The pressure of shopping for the perfect gifts, decorations, and holiday ingredients can cause more stress in addition to the expense of food, activities and travel. Remember the holidays are not all about spending. It may surprise you how understanding family members can be and how often we put financial expectations on ourselves. Consider simple activities that are inexpensive or free, such as hosting pot luck dinners or participating in Secret Santa/White Elephant exchanges to reduce the number of gifts needed. (Don’t forget, your regular bills and expenses will still be there after the holidays.) Click here for a list of free/budget-friendly holiday events happening in December!    

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Set clear boundaries: Family gatherings are assumed to be the perfect time to question relatives about their relationships, wedding plans, career goals and future children. These are sensitive topics and most people don’t want to be put on the spot to answer questions about their personal life, especially if their points of view are different from those around them. If unwanted questions start to arise, be assertive in setting a personal boundary to avoid any miscommunication or ill-will feelings.  A good rule of thumb to follow is unless the individual volunteer personal information, it is not recommended to pry.

Take time for yourself: Self-care is essential during this busy season. With all the moving parts surrounding you, it is necessary to slow down occasionally and take a little time for yourself. Anxiety and stress can be triggered by feeling overwhelmed and not having the proper balance of family time and “me” time. Build in breaks between entertaining, catering and/or communicating with family members. Taking time for yourself is healthy and will give you that “recharge” you need to continue engaging during the holidays.

When we think about surviving our unique family dynamics during the holidays, we must consider what dynamic we bring to the family as well. What role are you playing? Is your tone setting a positive or negative vibe for family interactions? What stressors are you putting on yourself? What expectations are you placing on others? Healthy family interactions start with you. We must be mindful and aware of our behavior and how it impacts the people around us. When you are self-aware, family relationships and interactions can thrive and improve, making holidays with family less stressful and more enjoyable.

Virginia N. Gaskins MS, LMHC

To read more blog posts written by Virginia, click here.