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Surviving, even improving, the family holiday

Counselor Mary Foston-English offers tips for managing relationships and maintaining peace when stress accompanies holiday celebrations.

Holidays with your family can be stressful. Mary Foston-English, a counselor at the Stanford Faculty Staff Help Center, offers insights about managing relationships during these weeks of festivity.

What makes family relationships complicated?

Family relationships are complicated because of the expectation that "we are all the same" because we're part of the same family. Because of pre-established roles dictating who we're supposed to be and how we're supposed to act (based on gender, birth order, family rules, family rituals), family systems do not always give us the space to be who we are.

Families are "systems," and when change occurs within that system or outside of it, the balance/equilibrium is upset. Keeping that balance is complicated because change is inevitable; people do change and grow in spite of the pressure to conform and keep the balance.

Why is this more challenging during the holidays?

Expectations are elevated during the holidays because of family rituals and assumptions about "how the holidays are supposed to be." For example, we may assume that everything has to be perfect or that spending more on gifts is better. Returning home or being with family members when you have changed, and when your values or expectations about the holidays are now different, can be stressful.

People also want to belong and feel connected during the holidays. This desire can be so strong that we overextend ourselves emotionally, physically and financially. We may buy gifts we cannot afford, prepare an elaborate, "perfect" meal or celebration, or attend a social or family function because we "have to" or "should."

Positive and natural changes in the family system -- such as a wedding or birth of a child -- can also challenge the rituals and expectations. What's more, holidays can highlight less positive changes (divorce, death, absence due to military duty), and if family rules are to not talk about these things, it adds to the stress.

How can I make a positive change this year?

Here are some tips:

  • Identify what is about the holidays that get you down, then deal with it directly.
  • Don't "overdo." Plan ahead, prioritize what needs to be done and try to involve others with the preparation.
  • Don't worry about how things should be or what you should do. Instead, do what you can do and more importantly, what you want to do.
  • If the holidays make you feel out of control, take timeouts for yourself. Have self-compassion and accept your limitations.
  • Use humor. Try to see the lighter side of life and not take yourself so seriously.
  • Stick to a budget for gift-giving and food-shopping, or even consider alternatives to gift giving.
  • Minimize over-indulging in food and alcohol as way to cope with stress.

Everyone seems to have that one relative who makes things difficult. Do you have any survival tips for dealing with that relative?

Because of the expectation of togetherness during the holidays, there's pressure to "put up" with someone you'd generally avoid. Family rules also dictate what -- if anything -- you can do other than just show up and pretend to have a good time.

If this is someone who holds a grudge or with whom you have had a disagreement, try contacting them before the holidays and begin talking to them about the disagreement. Reaching out beforehand will help minimize the stress and awkwardness. Remember that just because you might want to resolve the issue, the other person may not want to do the same.

  • Have realistic expectations of yourself and others.
  • Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all of your expectations. It's not a good idea to use the holidays to confront.
  • Identify ahead of time the "hot topics" -- i.e., subjects to avoid.
  • Establish healthy boundaries for yourself. It's okay to say "no."
  • Talk about the "toxic" relationship with an objective person, and discuss ahead of time some options for making this work for you. Role-play various scenarios with a professional, if possible, and identify what it is about this person that upsets you.

This article, in a longer form, originally appeared on BeWell Stanford.

Photo by Providence Doucet

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