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How To Make The Holidays With Your Family Less Stressful
By Dr. Jennifer Howard RSS Feed RSS Feed     Bookmark to del.icio.us   Submit to StumbleUpon   Share this on Facebook   digg: How To Make The Holidays With Your Family Less Stressful Add to Technorati Favorites

We are approaching holiday time, which can mean different things to different people. The media likes to give the impression that it is a time of year for joy, harmony and family gatherings while often the reality doesn’t resemble anything close to the warm and fuzzy display of affection, which can cause us to feel like a failure and adds to the stress in our lives.

 As a therapist, I help people navigate a number of family issues surrounding the holidays and would like to address some of those topics here. First, however, I’d like to remind my readers that an important aspect of what causes stress for us, no matter what time of year, is often connected to some inner painful, unresolved issue from the past.

 The holidays are a time when these internal conflicts compound. In addition, today people have more exaggerated difficulties compared to a few years ago. This is due to the uncertainties about job loss, health care, funding retirement, foreclosures, and simply making ends meet.

 These stressful situations can have the potential to create more arguments, conflicts, drug and alcohol dependency and emotional and verbal abuse. What is curious about this is that family members and loved ones most often become the target for the distress in our lives.

 It is my hope that the different, but quite ordinary, scenarios below, along with suggestions to help diffuse the stress, will make your holidays a bit more peaceful.



1)    Whenever my family and I get together, it seems all kinds of issues tend to rear their ugly heads. Is there any way to focus on the event at hand and not engage in old arguments?


One way would be to give yourself some physical space, since some of the conflicts can arise when you are all confined in one small area. If it’s possible, stay at a hotel so that you will not be in the same place for any long length of time. But remember that an inner experience of old unfinished  issues rearing their ugly heads should be processed and healed at another time. For the time being though, try to contain your feelings, but not at the cost of letting yourself be walked on.  


2)    Staying at a hotel is a great idea, except I know that my mother will be insulted, even though my intention is not to hurt her. How do I navigate such tricky waters?


I understand your concern, but it is important to directly state your needs. Consider this: “Mom, I’m looking forward to spending time with you, but I feel it would be easier for everyone if we stay at a hotel.” You can then go on and explain how your family likes to take long showers or go to bed early or late, depending on the situation. Perhaps she will begin to see it as a good idea, as well. However, if she continues to argue with you and act hurt, just be as kind as you can and stick to your plan.


3)    Okay, but given the economy, money is tight and we decided that we cannot afford to stay at a hotel. How can we avoid conflicts?


First, be aware of what topics do create conflicts. If you and your family have different political stances, perhaps that’s one topic you could avoid. However, if there is someone who is insistent that you discuss the topic, perhaps you could take a walk or offer to run an errand. Humor, too, is a great diffuser.


4)     I am a grown adult, but for whatever reason, I turn into a teenager when I’m at my

      mother’s house and react to her like I did when I was an adolescent. How can I 

      stop this reaction from occurring?


Take a closer look at what is being triggered inside of you that is creating the reaction and let that be your guide in your healing. If you do find that you have become reactive, do some of the ideas suggested in the above answer, write in a journal which may help you get clearer or have a talk with your spouse. If you react like an angry teenager, try to remember that you are no longer that age. Also, keep in mind that your parents are probably doing the best they can, even if that is not so good.


5)      In-laws can be tricky under the best of circumstances. How should the holidays be

approached if we have a difficult relationship with one or both of the in-laws? We certainly cannot avoid them.


Let your spouse take the lead. Since we marry people that are the best and worst of our mother and father, notice how they might be triggering your own unresolved childhood wounding. Your spouse should protect you from any direct attacks from their parents by running interference and this should be discussed before you get together as a family.


6)      My husband and I have A LOT of conflict over where and how to celebrate the holidays. We are now beginning to make our plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but I worry that we won’t agree on where to spend these holidays. In addition, we have children, so that is another factor.


It’s important to be fair and alternate years, if that is possible. It shouldn’t be too difficult to work out when compromise is involved. However, if there is a lot of conflict between the two of you, the holidays may be simply the springboard to a much larger, unresolved problem. You might want to get some support from a therapist around this and, if possible, I would start before you are knee deep in holiday activties.


7)      This year I decided to break tradition and I’m going on a cruise. I’m afraid my family will be insulted and hurt and see it as my way of not wanting to be around them, but I had a good year work-wise and this is the only time I could get away.


Congratulations! You’re right, your family may be upset, but you should be honest and let them know early enough so that their plans won’t be ruined. Depending on the wounding of your family, you may have to be firm, but kind, and do your work with your inner-child allowing them to have their feelings and supporting the adult inside of yourself.   

 Thank you for letting me share some of these questions and suggestions with you. Without a doubt, holidays and the gatherings that come from them, often get us tied up in knots, thanks to old, unresolved childhood issues. The more you look at these issues, the more freedom inside you will feel and you will be able to act from that freedom there. Others will also feel freer to be themselves. Less stress anytime is always welcomed, but most particularly around this time of year.

 However you celebrate, I wish you harmony and healing.

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       Posted: 12/13/2009 5:12:36 PM

Dr Jennifer, great article. It is a timely reminder for people to realize that contentious issues or situations will cause conflict and stress during the holiday season and a proactive approach is the key for a happy and safe holiday. Thank you

Cinda Crawford       Posted: 12/9/2010 2:19:49 PM

Oh... so timely! I want my followers to see this great information, so I''m linking to it at the Health Matters Show. Living with a tough chronic illness and participating in activities for the holidays can be the ultimate challenge.

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