Coping with Family Dynamics During the Holidays

Nov 21, 2016

During graduate school, one of my favorite places to visit was Kramer Afterwords, a bookstore/restaurant in Washington, DC, with some amazing drinks, desserts, and books. One particular favorite, The Dysfunctional Family Sundae, a blend of three ice creams, brownies, chocolate cookies, whipped cream and sauces (chocolate, butterscotch, and strawberry), all topped with a cherry. This desert required sharing amongst multiple friends. The tag line in The Dysfunctional Family Sundae went something like this: All ingredients good on their own, but when placed to together, sure to elicit indigestion, just like a dysfunctional family. Thus, cope with the dysfunction by sharing with friends.

This week we are officially in the midst of the holiday season, which for many, means a lot of time with family and in-laws. And while there is so much to be grateful for, there is no shortage of familial stress during the holiday ranging from the mild to more extreme.

Which leads me to the question I am often asked this time of year: How can I enjoy the holiday season with stress from family and in-laws dynamics (some dysfunctional more than others), and enjoy the holiday?

Here are some of my suggestions on how to cope with family and in-laws this holiday season:

  1. Be Aware of Your Contribution to the Situation. Thoughts influence feelings, feelings influence behaviors, and behaviors influence feelings and thoughts and vice versa for all. In other words, our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors influence and impact one another. Having negative thoughts about how the holidays will unfold, will likely bring about negative feelings and in turn you will behave in negative ways. How you think, feel and act will impact and influence those around you. Making choices about how to manage your thoughts, feelings and behaviors will make a difference in any situation.
  2. The Holiday Season is More Than a Day. While there are many holidays celebrated this week until January, remember, the holiday season is just that, a season, not one day. Of course, you will have obligations and events to attend, but balance those gatherings with meaningful and important activities that enhance your experience of the holiday season.
  3. Nothing is Perfect. No event, no person, no family is perfect. Perfect is a description of something unattainable. A gathering or situation can have stressful moments and still be enjoyable. Aiming for perfection-everything going “right,” sets up unrealistic expectations. Take a flexible approach and embrace imperfection, it’s less stressful, I promise.
  4. Accept Others for Who They Are. We may not always enjoy the behaviors or attitudes of family and in-laws, but they are who they are, regardless of what you hope they can be. Accepting people for who they are can take pressure off attempts to make someone change or be different. I know it can be challenging, but really, what is the alternative? Trying to change someone else is exhausting and usually doesn’t work. Redirect your energy to accept situations and people.
  5. Self-Awareness is Essential. Be aware of how family and in-law dynamics impacts your mood, energy and behavior. If you get annoyed with Uncle Bob’s political views and unsolicited parenting advice, know that you need to care for yourself. Limit interaction or conversations that could be upsetting or annoying. Likewise, it’s ok to walk away or change the subject versus falling into a battle to change someone’s mind.
  6. Increase Self-Care. Taking care of your physical, emotional, spiritual health are important life-long habits. When there is so much to do during the holiday season, putting self-care on the to-do list is critical. Making sure to get enough sleep, eat healthy, exercise, spend time with supportive friends and family and have fun engaged in enjoyable activities are all important self-care behaviors.
  7. Make Peace Before a Family Gathering. Don’t use a holiday gathering as a venue to bring up resentments and past upsets with a family member or relative. If there’s a rift or argument between family members, try to resolve the issue before the event or wait until after the gathering. A phone call or get-together to resolve issues before the family gathering is important to reduce tension and increase enjoyment for all family members.
  8. Don’t Take Things Personally. The holidays can stir up a lot for people, from emotional upset about loved ones who are deceased, to childhood memories, or changes in one’s life you may know nothing about. When someone acts out of character or seems distant, provide support and compassion and remember it likely has nothing to do with you.
  9. Limit Alcohol. Time and time again, a catalyst for family discord during the holidays is related to over-consumption of alcohol. People drink for a variety of reasons; enjoyment, pleasure, habit, addiction and to cope with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues. Once alcohol starts shifting from use to abuse, there is a high potential for misunderstandings, miscommunication, and a lowering of healthy interactions, especially if there is underlying tension or conflict. Limit alcohol intake if you are feeling stressed, anxious or depressed. Replace alcohol use with more healthy coping strategies and self-care.
  10. Be Compassionate and Supportive to Family Members with Children. Gatherings with children can be stressful; simply for the change in routine. Parents with children can be more stressed with the change in routine because children often become accustomed to the rhythm and flow of snacks, playtime, naps and mealtimes. It can be tempting to offer advice to parents to “Just relax” or “Let her fuss” or “Don’t give in to that behavior” or “What’s the big deal if she misses a nap?” Hold off making judgemental statements or offering problem-solving suggestions unless asked for advice. Instead, offer support by asking, “Is there anything I can do to help?” or, “What can I do to make things more comfortable for you?”
  11. Let Go of “Should Be” or ” I Wish It Were…” Having a mind-set during the holidays of “it should be this way” or ” I wish it were…” takes one out of enjoying the moment unfolding and placing expectations on a situation that are not possible. Take a deep breath, step back and be in the moment that you are experiencing. By letting go of such phrases, which sets us up for expectations or lock us into how things could be, only increases disappointment and decreases happiness and enjoyment.
  12. Understand How You Deal with Stress. People handle stress in different ways; some propel themselves in to do lists and completing tasks, others procrastinate until the last-minute and some escape through sleep and eating. Be aware of how you manage stress and work to include healthy strategies to deal with stress; exercise, meditation, relaxation, engaging in activities you enjoy.
  13. Focus on Gratitude. Throughout the holiday season, make a list of five to ten things you are grateful for. Perhaps you handled a situation in a new way that in the past would have been upsetting to you, or you enjoyed a conversation with a loved one, or you are grateful for the people in your life, whatever you are grateful for- highlight it. “I am grateful Aunt Sue read a story to Sam, so I could have a conversation longer than 30 seconds, I am grateful to see my family and friends, I am grateful for the meal we have in front of us, I am grateful for the person I have become.” Taking time to reflect on gratitude can shift stressful moments into a mindset of appreciation.
  14. Express Gratitude. This time of year, so many of us are giving the best we can give. And while we may not all see things or do things the same way, work to appreciate the small gestures and efforts from family and in-laws. Send a note, give a call, or share with others when you see it or experience it; expressing gratitude is essential any time of the year.
  15. Keep a Sense of Humor. Laughing and finding the humor in situations can be a great coping strategy at family gatherings. Try to find humor in situations. especially the scenarios you have no control over.
  16. Watch Some Movies About Dysfunctional Families. However, your holiday season turns out; there are some great movies to watch portraying dysfunctional family dynamics during the holiday. Some of my favorites are: Home for the Holidays, The Family Stone, and A Christmas Story.
    Wishing you and your family a very happy holiday season filled with self-care, peace and happiness.

© Copyright Dr. Claire Nicogossian 2015