Deck the halls with lots of family – and a hefty portion of holiday stress, too. ‘Tis the season for spending time with siblings, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins that we may not often see – sometimes for days on end in small quarters! There are bound to be a few challenging situations that pop up under these circumstances and we have some expert advice for handling them. Read on for helpful tips on how to keep your “merry-ness” this holiday season.
There’s something about going back to my parent’s house and being around my siblings that seems to make us all revert back to our previous (childish) selves. Although we’re grown adults now with families of our own, those old roles we played as kids (and some of those old hurts) still manifest themselves when we’re together. I know our kids are watching us – and I want to do better. How can I make this holiday go differently?
Yes, this is so true! There IS something about going back to your childhood home that makes you revert back to your childlike self. The smell of your mother’s perfume, the sound of a squeaky bathroom door, the sight of a scratch you left on the kitchen floor; these are powerful triggers of memories and feelings which can quickly (and unconsciously) evoke the emotional responses and reactions of your childish self. Simply recognizing this and wanting to do better will help you pave the path to maintaining the boundaries of your adult self. Insight leads to new actions. Create a plan. Make a list of the actions and responses you want to avoid. Identify the things that are likely to trigger you: your mother’s commentary on your hairstyle, your brother addressing you by the annoying nickname he coined at age 10, your sister using the last of your pricey shampoo, etc. Visualize yourself responding calmly and letting the irritation roll off of you. Practicing calm and rational responses will help you prevent an emotional reaction from slipping out. If you feel yourself being pulled into old family roles and dynamics, give yourself space to re-center. Take a walk. Offer to take the trash out. Do the dishes. Practice calm breathing and count to ten. Giving yourself a quick timeout can help you identify what you are feeling and be mindful of how you want to respond. Remind yourself to accept the things you cannot control and work on the things you can – your words and actions.
Kristen Pastrick, LCSW, LCAC – Psychotherapist and Owner of KAP Counseling, LLC in Broad Ripple
I love seeing all my nieces and nephews when we gather together for the holidays, except for one issue. My daughter, who is much younger than her cousins, always seems to get left out of the mix. She wants so much to be included in what they’re doing, but their conversations and interests are just not part of her world now. They’re nice kids and I don’t think they intentionally mean to ignore her, but it happens anyway. It makes it hard for my daughter (and me) to enjoy our time spent with family. What can we do?
Nobody likes the feeling of being left out. Achieving a sense of belonging in a group is a basic psychological need. It appears that this situation is not likely intentionally happening. It seems like your daughter is in a different developmental stage in comparison to her cousins. If you are comfortable, communicate your concerns to your siblings or your nieces and nephews. They may have noticed the same thing that you have and be able to help you with a solution. At the next holiday gathering, it could be helpful to provide activities that will allow your daughter and her cousins to connect despite age differences. A craft, game or movie might provide an environment where the cousins can all connect. Most importantly, talk to your daughter about how she has felt excluded in the past. Validate her experience and self-disclose about times you have felt excluded yourself. Studies show that feeling emotionally excluded is comparable to physical pain because of the way your brain processes the feeling. Obviously, feeling rejected isn’t exactly the same as stubbing your toe, but the pain is real. As a parent it is not your job to solve all of your child’s problems, but to be able to support her through life’s trials and tribulations. Your relationship with your daughter and other family members could grow through this problem.
Colleenia Korapatti, MA, LMHC, Private Practice, Groff And Associates
I’m hosting our big holiday dinner this year and I’m dreading the dinner table conversation I imagine will occur among our guests. Between my family and my husband’s family, we run the gamut of political, religious and social views – and many of those who will be in attendance are known to voice their beliefs very passionately. How do I keep sparks from flying and shift the focus to just celebrating the season together?
A client once told me “worry is an investment in something that may not happen.” Be careful not to let your anxious expectations affect the outcome of your gathering. When hosting an event in your home, you have dominion over the atmosphere and can set the tone for the evening. A peaceful way to initiate healthy conversation is to provide fun questions at the table such as, “What are you grateful for this year?” or “What is something you hope to cross off your bucket list in the year ahead?” Sparks fly in arguments when defensiveness pushes people away from one another. These questions bring people together because we have much more in common than we realize. Politics and religion may come up because that is what people are passionate about. Using “I statements” to express viewpoints allows for constructive dialogue. If communicated with love, openness and empathy, conversations about different perspectives on a topic can bring a group closer together while also broadening each participant’s knowledge of the world.
Anne Harton, MA, LMFTA
Marriage and Family Therapist Associate Resident
Family Counseling Associates
My brother’s family goes all out for the holidays when it comes to presents with an unbelievable stockpile under the tree. My kids are of the age now that they notice the difference between the amount of gifts they receive versus what their cousins receive. I can’t very well ask my brother to reduce what he wants to give his children, but it does make for some uncomfortable moments on Christmas morning. What’s the best way to handle this?
That’s tough for sure! Is there a way where they could only give them a portion of their presents when you guys are around? Maybe a two-gift rule per person? Another option might be to host at your house in hopes they won’t cart as much stuff over. However, both these options really are avoidance and don’t truly address the situation. Generally speaking, kids respond best when we are up front and honest (without putting down others). You can explain that you guys set a budget and regardless of how much money you have you are going to stick to that. Many people incur a lot of debt at Christmas. It’s never too early to start teaching our kids good financial sense! In the end, there will always be someone who gets bigger and better, even if it’s not family. Reiterate that gifts aren’t a sign of your love for someone and you will do your best to get them what they need and want, within limit and reason.
Jessica Hood, MSW, LCSW
Child & Adolescent Therapist
Indy Child Therapy
There’s no denying that the stress and pressure that often accompanies the holidays can bring out the “bah humbug” in us. To make your season more “merry and bright” set realistic expectations for time spent with family and think ahead about situations you anticipate being difficult and how you can address them. Then, enjoy this special time of year in whatever ways are meaningful to you. Happy holidays!