This article appears in our December 2015 issue of Indy’s Child Parenting Magazine. Flip through it here or pick up a copy today at your local Marsh or Kroger store, YMCA, public library or community center.
Maybe it’s Facebook’s fault, with its constant feed of friends’ seemingly perfect family moments. Or Pinterest is to blame, giving us an impossible holiday standard to achieve. But somewhere between orchestrating elaborate Elf on the Shelf hijinks and planning an entire Christmas feast, we often underestimate just how downright stressful this time of year can be.
With parents off work, kids on winter break, relatives to visit and countless things to wrap, cook and clean in preparation, it’s no wonder the “magic” of the holiday season often doesn’t live up to our snow-draped, candle-lit expectations.
“Many people have visions of a Currier and Ives-type of holiday, when in all actuality, many of us can relate to Clark Griswold in Christmas Vacation,” laughs Melissa Porter, a licensed marriage and family therapist associate who practices in Broad Ripple.
The rapid pace of the holiday season can magnify normal everyday stress, and disagreements over how your family should spend its time and money can easily put a damper on the festivities.
That’s why Dr. Maria Hanzlik, a clinical psychologist on Indy’s north side, advises couples to sit down together before the holidays to talk about expectations, budgets and potential pitfalls. “It’s important that you’re operating together as a team and really understand what your limits are as individuals, as a couple and as a family,” she says. “That way, when it gets hectic, you can always go back to the message of, ‘This is what we need, and this is what’s going to keep us sane for the holidays.’”
Worried about butting heads with your mother-in-law or dealing with an outspoken uncle? Even though we love them, spending time with relatives can send our blood pressure skyrocketing. Here we’ve asked our experts to share some tips for handling some common stressful scenarios this holiday season.
STRESSFUL MOMENT #1
Every year, your mother-in-law expects your family to travel several hours to her house on Christmas Eve and wake up to open presents in her home. You have accommodated her wishes for the past four years, but your children are growing up fast, and you would really like to have a Christmas morning spent in your own home. This is a conversation you have been dreading with her because you know it won’t go over well.
Hanzlik: It’s important to talk to your partner ahead of time to make sure you’re both in agreement. Then, when you talk to your mother-in-law, validate what her potential feelings might be while adding what you plan on doing. You could start out by saying, “I know this might be disappointing because I know Christmas morning is special to you, and I wanted to let you know that we would like to spend Christmas morning in our own home. I hope we can come up with a compromise to still spend time together this holiday.” People tend to try to meet everyone else’s needs but often forget their own needs.
Porter: Setting and adhering to boundaries can be difficult, and when it comes to our families, it can be an even greater challenge because we don’t want to hurt those we love. Oftentimes situations such as this come about as a result of a desire to create lasting family traditions. A good approach to this situation might be to come up with a mutually agreed upon alternative that would create a new family tradition with the in-laws. By doing this, the in-laws feel valued without you having to compromise your own family traditions.
STRESSFUL MOMENT #2
You’ve recently learned that your son is allergic to gluten and nuts and have expressed these dietary restrictions to your mom and dad who are hosting the holiday dinner. As you all sit down to eat and you carefully select appropriate dishes for your son, your dad makes a loud proclamation that food allergies in kids these days is overblown hype. Everyone appears uncomfortable and they look at you to see how you will respond.
Hanzlik: In the moment, you might try recognizing and relating to their opinion while still offering your own. You could say, “I understand how it could feel like food allergies are being overblown nowadays. I’m just glad we have more information now about how food can affect kids.” Remind yourself that other’s opinions are not fact. What dad said likely isn’t an attack against you, although it may feel that way. It’s just his perspective. This situation can be a nice way to model for your kids that it’s okay to have differences of opinions.
Porter: In this case, you could choose to not respond to the comment. However, if a response is necessary, then it is best to acknowledge your dad’s opinion and then explain your son’s individual allergy and the reaction to those foods. It may not change your dad’s mind, but it will show your son that you take the food allergy seriously.
STRESSFUL MOMENT #3
A relative gives a present to your child that you don’t approve of (think violent video games for your son or makeup for your 10 year-old daughter). To complicate things, your child loves the present.
Hanzlik: If you have an inkling that you have a relative who might do this, you can have a discussion with your kids ahead of present exchange time to talk about family rules and values. Remind them that they might get a present that isn’t in line with your family rules, but that they can say “thank you” anyway. You might say, “I get it. It seems unfair that you won’t be able to keep the present,” and then try to reach a compromise, like returning it to the store for a more appropriate gift.
Porter: If you have a close relationship with the relative, you are likely able to be a bit more direct explaining that, while you appreciate the thought, the gift is not one that you feel comfortable allowing your child to have at this time. However, if the relationship is more distant, you might just want to say “thank you” and then explain to your children later why the gift is not appropriate. Open dialogue with your children regularly about what you find to be acceptable versus unacceptable will help when faced with these situations.
STRESSFUL MOMENT #4
At a family get-together, an uncle loudly starts to voice his political or religious views, which are very different from the values promoted in your family. Your kids are listening with rapt attention, looking like they expect you to say something in response.
Hanzlik: How you choose to deal with a situation like this really depends on your personality. If you’re extroverted and comfortable being more outspoken, you might try to respond with interest while still expressing where you stand on the issue. You can model for your children how to have a calm response in a conversation with others who have a difference of opinion. If you don’t feel comfortable voicing those opinions, you may choose not to say anything in the moment, but then on the way home, you could bring it up with your kids. You could say, “I know you heard what uncle so-and-so had to say. What did you think of that? What would you have done?” It’s an opportunity to have your kids think critically about the situation.
Porter: This is an excellent opportunity to model in front of your kids open-mindedness and respect, because they will be faced with this sort of conflict of beliefs time and time again. In this case, you could choose to not respond. However, if you decide to respond to your uncle, it is best to remain neutral and acknowledge his right to have differing views. I would encourage a parent to later process the situation with their kids to discuss how we are all unique individuals with views that don’t always align, but we can still have love and compassion for those different from us.
STRESSFUL MOMENT #5
Your family has discussed a dollar limit for exchanging gifts. You really need to follow this guideline, but your sister keeps going way overboard on what she buys for your family, making you feel bad for sticking to your budget.
Hanzlik: Try speaking to your sister privately to tell her your feelings about this situation, and try to understand what prompted her to go over the limit. Maybe it was innocent and she was just excited about the gift exchange. Do your best to stay calm and set the boundary about what your family’s needs are. If, on the other hand, this is a repeat offense, it may be time to consider sidestepping the gift exchange tradition.
Porter: In situations such as these, it is easy to feel bad, but it is important to remember that you cannot control what others spend or give. You could handle this situation in several ways, but I would suggest first having an honest conversation with your sister about the reasons the dollar limit was set and then how it makes you feel when that boundary is not respected. If that does not change things, then perhaps consider that even though a boundary has been set, your sister is getting joy out of the gifts she is giving.
Although spending time with family can be a highlight of the holidays, it can also have its share of uncomfortable situations and unintended hurt feelings. Try to stay focused on the positive moments of the season that make it special for your family and do your best to keep the unpleasant ones from turning you into a Grinch. New Year’s is just around the corner, which might be the perfect time to make a few resolutions about how to handle next year’s holiday!
Maggie Loiselle spent 10 years as a writer, producer and web editor in television news before making the switch to freelance writing in order to stay home with her young son. She is a Michigan native and a graduate of Butler University. Maggie lives in downtown Indianapolis with her husband and son.
Watch for more of Maggie’s work in upcoming issues of Indy’s Child Parenting, Cincinnati Parent and Dayton Parent Magazines.