Family Holiday Stress – Tips For Handling Family Gatherings

by Dr. Karen Ruskin on November 22, 2012

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If you experience stress when getting together with your family or your spouse’s family over the holidays, you are not alone. This does not mean you must suffer at a level ’10′ on a ’0-10′ scale! Provided below are 6 tips for handling family gatherings from this family/relationship expert to you. Happy Holidays!

  1. Be yourself - There are many sides of self; E.g., compassionate/understanding, passionate, warm and nurturing, angry, bitter, frustrated, disappointed, reactive, impulsive, sad, etc. Choose to be the side of yourself that makes you feel in control of you. Choose to be the side of yourself that you want to be, not the side of you that is in negative reactive response mode to another’s behavior. You are better than that! (E.g., Your mother in law who has Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t realize that you are her son’s wife and says to you; “my son married a woman who is not good enough for him”. Then in a flash she is back realizing you are the wife and she does not recall having told you what she said. Yes, you are feeling very hurt. You can choose to be any side of you in that moment: a) reactive and angry and tell your husband it’s time to leave and that his mother is an S.O.B, or b) warm and nurturing and tell your husband; “I love you and know you love me, I am sorry for you and your dad that your mother has Alzheimer’s”. Clearly choice ‘B’ would be the fabulous version of you, and in this context wouldn’t you feel proud of yourself if you could be the ‘B’ version of you?
  2. What someone else says or does says something about them and nothing about you - This is in line with the whole concept of choosing to not let another person’s words nor behavior, action nor inaction trigger your behavior and words. E.g., your  nit picky Aunt tells you; “looks like you gained some weight since I have seen you last”. Tell yourself; “it is my Aunt’s insecurities about her own weight that leads  her to notice another’s weight. This is a healthy “self talk” verbalization rather than allowing another’s words and issues get you down.
  3. Think positive thoughts - Another’s negative verbalization and/or body language does not have to bring out the negativity in you. This tip is all about being mindful of your own thinking and make it a point to “self talk” in a positive way. Tell yourself positive things. E.g., Your father tells you; “You do not keep a neat home, it makes me feel embarrassed.” Rather than letting this get you down to where you spiral into your own negative “self talk” about other things he is disappointed about in you, rather, you can tell yourself the things that you feel are positive about you, your live. E.g., “I am proud of myself for completing the important project I needed to do at work.” “I feel blessed to have healthy children.” “I love my healthy hair.” “I value that my parents are still alive to see me get married. “
  4. Have your spouse’s back - E.g., If your wife and mother have a history of relationship strife, and your wife is already uptight predicting that your mother is going to say something mean, because that is the typical pattern, choose to have your wife’s back in a polite way to your mother. Example; “Mom, I love you dearly, those were hurtful words you said to my wife, of whom you know I love deeply, please, this is a gift that we can all be together, let’s cherish it.” In my book; Dr. Karen’s Marriage Manual, I explain the importance of understanding your spouse’s needs, being attentive, and being their biggest fan – those are among many of the relevant components of creating and keeping a healthy marriage. Do be mindful of how  you communicate not only directly to your spouse but about what you say and do not say about your spouse to family is also of significance.
  5. Another’s long standing relationship problem is not your problem/do not let another’s relational anxieties become your anxieties - When it comes to children, they often are witness to their parents’ relationship problems with their own parents, in essence, the children’s grandparent-parent relationship. Or perhaps it is the relationship dynamic between one’s parents and one’s parent’s siblings. Children typically feel stressed out by this. E.g, Teenage son observes his father and his grandfather arguing with one another about money during a family holiday gathering. This arguing moment may be a good time for the son to step away and go to the bathroom or go chat with a different family member for a break from that relationship dynamic realizing their issues does not have to be his issue. Along with this tip for kids, I offer a tip for parents to increase the prevention of this stress on kids. Certainly we cannot prevent all arguments, nor should we, certainly during family gatherings over the holidays, intentionally trying to have positive healthy interactions is advantageous, and of therapeutic value for self, those around us, and specifically for our children. In my book; 9 Key Techniques For Raising Respectful Children I explain the importance of “hearing our children’s voice”, even when you disagree so they feel they matter. A child who feels their voice is of value, thus a child who feels their voice matters will treat themselves and others respectfully. It is those children who will be respectful of the voice of others because they felt their voice was respected. Parents, during family gatherings over the holidays, be mindful of your children’s voice, even the unsaid. Do your best as parents to be compassionate of their voice by behaving in such a way that allows for a healthy environment for them. The voice of children during family holiday gatherings is; “Can’t we just all get along for one night and enjoy the holiday?”
  6. Discuss boundaries before you go to the family gathering - If there is a topic that is a struggle happening in your lives (E.g., infertility, infidelity, job loss) that either one or both of the marital team does not want to be discussed, explain that to your spouse prior to going to the gathering. Do be respectful of one another’s boundary request. By discussing what is “off limits” in advance with your spouse, when/if the topic should so come up during the family gathering you can kindly decline speaking about the topic reporting that you wish to simply “relish in the joy of the family being together”. You can further state that the strains and pains of the current life challenges you are experiencing  you wish to “place aside for the evening as it will be there the next day to attend to.” The, thank them for their understanding of this request so they do not push the issue.

Enjoy this article? Wish to check out more resources on tips for handling stressful family gathering over the holidays? Check these out:

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Follow Dr. Karen on Twitter or Facebook. Media Psychotherapist Guest Expert; Relationships, Parenting, Hot Topics In The News. Appears on: The O'Reilly Factor, FOX & Friends, FOX & Friends FIRST, America Live, Hannity, regular go-to for FOX Boston, and more. Can be heard on Radio: FOX News, 96.9 Boston Talks, and more. Columnist, quoted in various print media: FOX Business, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Care.com, USA Today, Parents, TIME, Woman's Day, and more. Owner/Director of Dr. Karen Ruskin & Associates, Inc. Based in Massachusetts. Author of: 9 Key Techniques For Raising Respectful Children and Dr. Karen's Marriage Manual. Copyright 2012.

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