It’s that time of year again when most of us consider the trek home to join the family fun. For many, it’s a trip into dysfunction, raising anxiety levels. Family get-togethers can create holiday angst–a gift worth not giving!
Most of my therapy discussion this time of year centers on helping people prepare for family get-togethers. My first piece of advice is this: do not idealize family relations. Unless you’ve all been in intensive therapy for a while, the family dance is not that different from years passed. Grandpa will still drink too much. Aunt Mary will be critical of the turkey. And Uncle Bob will be as obnoxious as ever. If you approach your family problems realistically, you can better prepare your reactions.
Here are tips to prepare for holiday family encounters:
1) Focus on your reaction. It is the only thing you can control. If you want change then don’t react the same way. For example, if Uncle Jim corners you ever year and lambastes you for your political views and you respond with anger that leads to a fight, try a new response like this, “Uncle Jim, I can see you feel strongly about your views. That’s great!” Don’t argue. Drop it and diffuse him.
2) Ahead of the visit, identify the family patterns that usually cause you stress. Think of new ways to react to those patterns. For example, mom complains about your sister to you. Instead of talking with her about your sister like you usually do, say, “Mom you need to talk to my sister about this. I don’t want to be in the middle.” Keep redirecting her back to your sister no matter how enticing she makes the conversation. Get out of the middle of conflict. This is called being in a family triangle. You don’t want to be there!
3) Set limits if there are serious family problems. For example, if there is a history of abuse, be clear about boundaries. Or if drinking gets out of hand, leave. You are not a child anymore. You can set appropriate boundaries. If they are crossed, confront the behavior and if necessary leave.
4) Stay near by and not in your parents’ house. This is a strategy that has worked for many of my clients. You have more control when you can come and go. And you have time away to regroup and think about what is happening.
5) Be a model of grace and forgiveness. If you are a Christian, you may have to extend both several times during a visit. This doesn’t mean you allow people to walk all over you. It means when people treat you poorly, address it, extend grace and forgive. Don’t wait for them to do so first.
6) Finally, choose one thing you will do differently this year that will help make things better. Don’t try to change everything at once. Focus on one behavior. Small changes add up through the years.