Not so Happy Holidays: Navigating Stressful Family Interactions
For many the holidays are a time of great joy and happiness filled with family connection and celebration. However, the holidays can also trigger feelings of sadness or loneliness when your family isn’t so happy or you don’t really have a place to return to that feels like home. Many of us dread going home and the awkward family dynamics that are inevitably evoked when everyone is under one roof. So why are the holidays difficult for so many of us?
- Old habits die hard: When we return to our families of origin, we fall back into old patterns of interaction. These patterns may be familiar, but frequently lead to unhealthy relational dynamics. Often, this happens without conscious awareness and by the time we realize it has happened, we are already stuck in the old family pattern.
- The family battle ground: For some of us preparing for a holiday with our family means mentally and emotionally preparing ourselves to walk into a potential minefield of pain. I often hear this from my adult clients who are returning home to interact with emotionally abusive or mentally ill parents and/or siblings during the holidays. When home is not a peaceful and supportive place, holiday gatherings are often met with mixed feelings or dread.
- Expectations: During the holidays we are bombarded with images of and expectations for the perfect Christmas, Thanksgiving, family gathering etc. This sets us up for disappointment and stress when we feel pressured to conform to these ideals from family, friends, or the media.
- Awkward questions: Family holiday gatherings often bring with them awkward questions such as: When are you getting married?, How’s your job going?, When are you going to have children?, etc. Additionally, family members may ask questions about your identity, or the ways in which you have changed since being away from home, which can create uncomfortable situations we would rather avoid.
What you can do:
- Be kind to yourself/practice self-compassion: Everyone falls into old patterns when interacting with family, so don’t be so hard on yourself if you realize this has happened to you. Realizing you’ve fallen into an old habit is your opportunity to decide how you want to respond from that point forward (e.g. Is there a new behavior, action, or response that you would rather try? Do you need to excuse yourself and take a break from the situation?).
- Remind yourself that it is only temporary: Going home for the holidays or spending time with family typically lasts anywhere from 1 day to a couple of weeks. Reminding yourself that the situation is not permanent can help create a sense of agency and control in the midst of an uncomfortable situation.
- De-stress and embrace realistic expectations: Try not to get caught up in the expectations and ideals of a perfect holiday or family. Despite what TV and social media tend to portray, life is messy and imperfect. Embrace realistic expectations, and do not allow yourself to get consumed with thoughts of the perfect family or holiday at the expense of enjoying the time you have with your actual family and friends. Look for things to appreciate about what you currently have, rather than comparing your life to others.
- Give yourself permission to take breaks: Make a plan for what you can do to help calm yourself down or recharge if things get to feel too overwhelming. For example, try taking a walk, deep breathing, calling a friend, running an errand, or going for a drive.
- Give yourself permission to set boundaries: It’s okay to advocate for yourself and your needs. Boundaries can be implemented in a variety of domains (e.g. time, interactions, physical space, and emotions). For example, you may set an interactional boundary when asked an uncomfortable question by saying, “I would rather not talk about it,” or “I’m not comfortable discussing that.” Or you might set a time boundary by telling your family that this year you are doing Christmas morning at home with your kids, then will come over later that afternoon to celebrate with the family.
- When possible, give your family the benefit of the doubt: Sometimes family members continue interacting with us in ways we do not like because they genuinely do not know that their behavior is problematic or offensive to us. Practice appropriate assertiveness and consider telling them if something they are doing is hurtful or problematic.
- Find an ally: A sibling, relative, spouse, or partner who is supportive and understanding can make all the difference when entering difficult family situations. Having an ally can help serve as a buffer and can help you decompress after challenging interactions by having someone safe to talk to or get support from when needed.