We all know the feeling: the family sits down at the table for a delicious holiday feast, and before you even get to the pumpkin pie Dad and Aunt Marge are at each other’s throats thanks to an emotionally charged political debate. Suddenly, pie doesn’t seem so appetizing — and you’re planning your escape route.
Sound familiar? If that little vignette made your blood pressure spike, it likely hits close to home. We don’t want to give the wrong impression – for most of us, despite family stress, the holidays are an exciting time filled with traditions that evoke nostalgia and meals that make our mouths water. They give us something to look forward to; an opportunity to see relatives we haven’t seen in months or years and to appreciate the special kind of joy and festivity that we only experience for a couple of months out of the year. Still, few families are immune to the holiday stress that emerges when everyone in the family gives way to the sticky dynamics that we learned as children.
What to do when the season of good tidings brings with it an abundance of fighting? We asked our staff for advice on managing the turbulence caused during the holiday season, and they shared a number of great tips for handling the family and the emotional turmoil that can ensue when conversations get rocky. Here are Eugene Therapy’s thoughts on managing holiday stress:
Keep What Matters in Mind
If your family members tend to butt heads, go into your holiday family reunions with gratitude in mind. Remind yourself that although your family doesn’t always get along, this is your annual opportunity to appreciate one another. And while you can’t necessarily control the behaviors of others, what you can do is alter your own perspective. Focus on being thankful and present for the family members that you do connect with, rather than on family problems.
Mind the Children
Sometimes the added stress of having extended family around can cause us to put more pressure on the children without realizing. We tend to bark orders at them more often than we might like to admit, which can put a damper on their enjoyment of the holiday event. Remember that they’re already busier than usual with travel, guests, and an overabundance of food, so it can be overwhelming for them to keep track of the tasks they’re being delegated. Keep tabs on how many commands you’re giving your children throughout the day, such as, “Get me a towel,” “Set the table,” and “Say hello to your Aunt Cecilia.” Try re-framing your approach by inviting them to contribute in the kitchen or making meaningful comments about what the children are doing correctly, like, “You were so careful when you passed that gravy. Good job!” or “I’m happy that you agreed to play Monopoly with your cousin even though it’s not your favorite game. That was very nice of you!” It also helps to give them opportunities to unwind, such as retreating to a quiet room to read a book together or going on a short walk.
Avoid Your "Familial Role"
When family gets together, it can be easy to fall back into your familial childhood role. Maybe you were the scapegoat; maybe you were the black sheep. These roles are much more representative of who you were as a child than they are of who you are now. Nonetheless, when the whole family is together it can be a challenge to keep yourself from temporarily turning back into your childhood self. During holiday gatherings, revisiting these roles can cause undue stress, so making an intentional effort to change things up is a good way to avoid the problem. You can do this by bringing a friend with you to dinner, focusing on staying out of the line of fire in a way that works best for you, or bringing a family game to play as a distraction. Remind yourself that this is a happy time, and try not to get caught up in annoyances.
Above all, we think it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, everyone has a common goal: to embrace the term "happy holidays," and to build positive, warm memories together. Do what you need to do to de-stress, whether that means going on a jog to burn off some steam (or turkey? or tofurkey?) or spending some time alone running errands. Taking care of yourself will help you keep your cool, and is a key component to the successful management of holiday stress.