As the holiday season bears down on us, many folks find their anxiety levels spiking in anticipation of yet another stressful family holiday. We all know that family gatherings can be difficult to varying degrees, and in some homes, to an extreme degree. So what can you do to make it through the holiday season without cracking? Here are 5 tips to help you survive holidays with the family.
1. Expect the Expected
Don’t pin your holiday hopes on this year being different from every other year. Unless there has been a major change in family structure, or people have spent the year in therapy, or some other significant shift has taken place, you can safely assume that everyone will be coming back to the table with the same eccentricities they’ve always brought. Uncle Joe will probably have a little but too much to drink. Grandpa will make racist jokes. Grandma will layer on the guilt.
All the annoying, offensive, and challenging behaviors that have bothered you in the past will be making a cameo again this year. If you’re holding out for something different, the disappointment can be very unpleasant. If you are emotionally prepared for business as usual, it’s easier to take.
2. Plan Ahead
Since you likely have a good idea of what’s coming, you can also set a plan of action to respond to the usual provocation – perhaps better than you have in the past. If your vegetarian preferences have been “forgotten” in the past, bring some food with you (clandestinely, if such is needed in your particular family politics) so you don’t have to starve at a table full of carnivores. If a cousin tends to be a little too touchy-feely, plan to sit on the other side of the table, and maybe keep your phone on hand in case you need to suddenly take an emergency call when he gets in your personal space.
There is little point in getting upset at the challenges you already know are coming. Not only can you be emotionally prepared for these difficulties, you can have a plan of action in place as well to make the situation more manageable.
3. Set Clear Boundaries
Decide in advance what kind of behaviors you will and won’t tolerate and how you can respond appropriately. When Grandpa starts up with the offensive jokes, is it best to smile and nod to avoid another family feud? Or is it appropriate to simply walk away to avoid having to hear it? Or maybe you want to take a stand this year and let him know those jokes are unacceptable? All of these are legitimate approaches, but you will feel much more calm and prepared if you know ahead of time what the limits are and what you’ll do about them.
Some other boundaries to consider are what personal topics you’re willing to discuss (perhaps this year you’ll decline to share information about whether you’re dating, when you’re finally getting engaged, or if you’re pregnant yet); what kind of comments you will let slide and what you won’t (digs at your lifestyle choices, parenting practices, or political leanings?); which requests you will go along with and which you won’t (will you join at religious services you don’t believe in to please your family? Or try Aunt May’s special dessert even though you’re on a diet?); and any other areas you know to be sensitive to you or your family.
4. Keep Away from Hot-Button Issues
Part of setting good boundaries is making sure to stay far away from those topics and issues you know will get everyone riled up. Politics is a classic one (especially in current times) – people of all political persuasions can get very impassioned about their positions, and this is a great way to ruin a family dinner. In your family there may be any number of other thorny subjects, from errant family members to current events to religion to your personal life – whatever you know to be a powder keg in your family is something you should avoid. Even if – or especially if – you are an activist in one of those areas, holiday gatherings aren’t the best venue for sharing your passion about it, unless you know that everyone else has the same opinions as you on that particular issue.
5. Focus on the Good Parts
Virtually all family gatherings have some good parts to them. If there wasn’t some kind of silver lining you probably wouldn’t be going. Seeing your parents, siblings, and other relatives often brings some nice feelings, even if they are mixed with not-so-nice ones. Perhaps your kids enjoy seeing their cousins or grandparents. Even if the only silver lining is that your parents are happy you came while you are miserable, you can focus your attention on your commitment to your values and to being a good person and a good son/daughter.
Families, they say, are like fudge – mostly sweet, but sometimes there’s some nuts in ‘em. Try to enjoy your holiday season to the best of your abilities, take pleasure in the parts that are pleasurable, and don’t worry – it will all be over soon!
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