Family and the Holidays: More joy and less stress

The leaves are changing colors and the days are getting shorter which reminds us that Fall is is upon us.  With the new season, comes several American and religious holidays. While the holidays are a great time to catch up with family and friends, for some spending time with the family can be dreadful.

We may dread seeing a grandmother who nitpicks about our parenting or a mother who is overly concerned with our weight. It could be a brother who stresses you out because he is chronically unemployed or a father who insists on bringing his new girlfriend despite knowing it will upset your mother. It could be your own children who are out of school and are destroying the house while demanding all your time.

The holidays can mean good food, laughs, and time away from work, but they may come at a high price.  Frequently that cost is confronting the drama that is your family. Your family may be a significant source of stress within your life.

Stress is a physical and emotional response to an uncomfortable situation. We can experience stress from positive situations, such as a marriage, or negative situations, such as a divorce.  While managing the everyday stress of our family, the holidays may pose a unique challenge because the holidays include several unique burdens. During the holidays, there are many time, financial, and emotional demands. Dealing with family is another issue on top of the many issues embedded in the holidays.

Because healthy family interactions during the holidays (and everyday) are important, I outline a few suggestions below.

  1. Add in self-care—Too often the holidays are all about gifting and giving to someone else. Make sure you are on your own gift list. Treat yourself to a spa day or a gift card to your favorite store. Cook a meal of your favorites. Spend quality time reading a book, taking a bath, or engaging in your favorite self-care activity. Self-care is about making space to take care of yourself. It includes doing nice things for you, but it also includes recognizing when you need break. Make sure you reflect on how you are feeling before you reach your tipping point.
  1. Splurge on a hotel—Forcing yourself to stay in a home that makes you uncomfortable is horrible. If you know you will need a break to decompress or vent, plan to stay where you will be comfortable…a hotel! While a hotel may feel impersonable and require more money, it may put a little more vacation into the holiday break. If you can’t afford a hotel, try to create space by going on a walk alone. Pack some of your favorite items and include things like books and candles which may help you unwind.
  1. Accept people for who they are— What you resist, persists. A statement frequently attributed to Carl Jung highlights that one way to change our circumstances is to accept it. Accepting our family for their strengths and shortcomings is helpful. If you enter the holiday season expecting someone to have grown significantly from the last time you saw them, you may be extremely disappointed. By accepting that someone is who they are allows you to focus more on changing yourself—your reactions to them or your feelings about what they are doing. Shifting to acceptance is not about resolving that things will never change rather it is about allowing peace to exist as we allow things to change on their own time.
  1. Set realistic expectations—Researchers suggest that setting appropriate expectations are helpful in relationships and employment. The holidays are stressful enough without placing unrealistic expectations on yourself and others. If you don’t like cooking, demanding that you cook a homecooked meal is too much.  If you know that your family has limited income, attempting to make a reservation at an expensive restaurant may create drama. If your children are rambunctious, thinking they will steer clear of your grandmother’s glass figurines is unrealistic. Having realistic expectations allows you to create a manageable plan that you can execute.
  1. Practice de-escalation—De-escalation is the art of decreasing the intensity of a conversation. These skills are used frequently in mental health, nursing, and law enforcement agencies. The goal is to keep the conversation from escalating to a full-blown argument or physical altercation. One technique for de-escalation is minimizing communication by saying simple and clear responses. It also involves listening more than talking. Another way to deescalate is to manage your nonverbals. Make sure your facial expressions are neutral or positive. Nod your head and smile. Use phrases such as “Its okay if we agree to disagree” and “I respect your opinion.” Such statements are a respectful way to disagree. Another great de-escalation technique is to walk away. Every conversation does not have to end in complete agreement. Its okay to let it go in order to spare yourself and the other family members.

Families can be a great social support. Hopefully, this year you will finally put the Happy back in Happy Holidays!!

Shareefah Al’Uqdah PhD, Assistant Professor and Director of Training, Howard University Counseling Psychology Program





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