For some families the holidays are a special time, perhaps the only time all year that they get to see other family members. As special as these occasions are, we all know the feelings of anxiety and concern about having to see a certain person in the family – in some cases it even engenders fear.

Possibly your teenage son wants to be home and refuses to participate in the festivities.  He is sulking on the couch with his phone texting friends, and completely ignoring everyone – leaving you angry and embarrassed.  Maybe Uncle Bob drinks too much and acts out inappropriately. He says all the wrong things (in front of the kids), and causes a scene every year.  Or, your sister-in-law always strives to be the center of everything by talking loudly over everyone and playing the role of victim in order to demand constant attention.

Then there are grandparents who may hover over the kids offering them whatever they want and undermining you by comforting them when you as the parent try to discipline.  Finally, there is always someone who tends to be opinionated, rigid in thinking, suspicious, and unyielding who invariably starts a conversation about politics or religion throwing everyone into disarray.

Remember family holiday time is not family therapy time – that is for professionals to handle and in private. Do not allow yourself to be drawn into the drama that these individuals use to dominate social events and diminish your enjoyment of the holidays.  This may seem impossible, however here are some tips that can help.

  1. Keep it all in perspective. The stress during the months of November and December can cause even those who are usually content to experience mood swings, depression, and short tempers. These major holiday celebrations also come at the darkest, coldest time of the year when many people are negatively affected by the shortage of sunlight.  Seasonal Affective Disorders are common in a high percentage of the population causing depression, fatigue, and a general lack of motivation to do anything – at the busiest time of the year.
  1. Don’t expect holidays to be perfect. More importantly don’t expect families to be perfect – every extended family has conflict and the holidays tend to bring out the worst of it. Make space. Make a deal with yourself to spend 15 minutes alone, without distractions when things start to get to you. Lock yourself in the bathroom if needed or go outside for a walk.  Do some deep breathing exercises, and remind yourself to regulate your emotions and stay calm.  You don’t have to be “on” all the time, and 15 minutes can actually recharge you more than you realize.
  1. Use a buffer. Spouses, partners, friends and loved ones can be sources of tension, but they can also be sources of protection. Make a deal with a trusted person to intervene and end the conversation when they hear Aunt Sally start to grill you on your personal life. Set up secret signals beforehand in case the person might miss the cue to step in and help out.
  1. Acknowledge your feelings. Sadness and disappointments are not uncommon feelings during the holidays. Forcing yourself to be happy will only increase your sadness and build resentment.
  1. Set aside differences. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to all of your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they’re feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression too.
  1. Navigate Criticism. One of the hardest things to navigate as a parent is criticism aimed at your kids. If a grandparent calls your child messy or inconsiderate, you may feel defensive or interpret it as an attack on your parenting. Some grandparents may make the comment in jest, but most of the time people say things that reflect their own issues. But if your feelings (or your child’s feelings) are hurt, politely ask the person not to repeat the comment. You could start by saying that you are trying to teach your child to speak kindly about others, and it will help if they reinforce the message. And, of course, if your child feels insulted, show her that her feelings are important to you and demonstrate that you support her.
  1. Be compassionate to yourself. It’s ok to acknowledge that spending five days with your family may not be a vacation that you would choose – but remember you do it because it’s important to the people who are most important to you!

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Susan Mitchell

Susan Mitchell is a licensed clinical social worker and is clinical director at Ascendant Behavioral Health, located in Lehi. She can be reached at smitchell@ascendantclinics.com or 801-502-3913.