Surviving the family holiday

Mary Foston-English, MFT, assistant director of Stanford’s Faculty and Staff Help Center. shares practical guidance for those of us who feel our anxiety barometers rise as soon as the words “family holiday” are uttered at this time of year.

What makes family relationships complicated?

Family relationships are complicated because of the expectation that “we are all the same” because we’re part of the same family. The expectations we have of each other (because we’re related) can make it difficult to “be ourselves,” especially if we have different values and goals than do other family members. Because of pre-established roles of who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act (based on gender, birth order, family rules, family rituals), family systems do not always give us the space to be who we are.

Families are “systems,” and when change occurs within that system or outside of it, the balance/equilibrium is upset. Keeping that balance is complicated because change is inevitable; people do change and grow in spite of the pressure to conform and keep the balance. Visualize a hanging wind chime with several connected parts and imagine what happens when one of the pieces/parts is missing. The most immediate “fix” is to replace that part in order to maintain the balance.

Why is this more challenging during the holidays?

Expectations are elevated during the holidays because of family rituals and assumptions about “how the holidays are supposed to be.” Some of the assumptions we have about the holidays include:

  • “Holidays are supposed to be joyous and happy.”
  • “Holidays are times when families come together.”
  • “If you don’t have family, then there’s no reason to celebrate.”
  • “There’s no place like home for the holidays.”
  • “The bigger the gift and/or the more we spend, the better.”
  • “Everything has to be perfect.”

Returning home or being with family when one has changed, and when one’s values/expectations about the holidays are now different, can be stressful. It’s easier sometimes to just “go along” with “the way it’s always been” rather than “rock the boat.”

People want to belong and feel connected during the holidays. This desire can be so strong that we overextend ourselves emotionally, physically and financially. Examples of this include the following:

  • Spending money to travel to be with family/loved one(s) with limited finances 
  • Buying gifts one cannot afford
  • Attending social/family functions because we “have to” or “should”
  • Preparing an elaborate, “perfect” meal or celebration

Mobility factors are sometimes overlooked because it’s expected — family tradition demands one to be with a particular family member. Or, there’s no family tradition, and the anxiety about “Whose turn is it this year?” makes things unpredictable and leads to last-minute planning — which can create a different kind of stress.

Positive and natural changes in the family system — such as a wedding or birth of a child — can also challenge the rituals/expectations, although there are pressures to keep things the same. Holidays can highlight everything that may have changed (divorce, death, college student returning home, absence due to military duty) and if family rules are to not talk about or talk too much about these things, it adds to the stress of the holidays.

The sameness of holiday gatherings can be monotonous, and monotony can spawn its own set of stressors.

How can I make a positive change this year?

Here are several tips. Choosing any one of these can make for a more enjoyable holiday season:

  • Identify what is about the holidays that get you down. Once identified, deal with it directly.
  • If doing the “same old thing” gets you down, don’t do the same old thing.
  • Don’t expect miracles; keep your expectations of others and self realistic.
  • Don’t “overdo”: plan ahead of time, prioritize what needs to be done and try to involve others with the preparation.
  • Don’t worry about how things should be or what you should do but do what you can do and more importantly what you want to do.
  • If the holidays make you feel out of control, “take control” over the holidays by taking timeouts for yourself. Have more self-compassion and accept your limitations.
  • Use humor; try to see the lighter side of life and not take yourself so seriously.
  • Stick to a budget for gift giving and food shopping, or even consider alternatives to gift giving.
  • Minimize over-indulging in food and alcohol as way to cope with stress.

Everyone seems to have that one relative who makes things difficult. Do you have any survival tips for dealing with that relative?

Every family has at least one “toxic relative.” Because of the expectation of being together during the holidays, there’s pressure to “put up” with someone you’d generally avoid. Those same old family rules also dictate what, if anything, you can do other than just show up and pretend to have a good time. If this is someone who holds a grudge or with whom you have had a disagreement, try contacting them before the holidays and begin talking to them about the disagreement — either via email, letter or phone call. Reaching out beforehand will help minimize the stress and awkwardness during the holidays. Remember that just because you might want to resolve the expectation, the other person may not want to do the same. 

  • Have realistic expectations of yourself and others.
  • Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to all of your expectations. It’s not a good idea to use the holidays to “confront.” 
  • Identify ahead of time the “Hot Topics” — i.e., those subjects to avoid.
  • Establish “healthy” boundaries for yourself: It’s OK to say “no.” 
  • Try to talk about some of these “toxic” family relationships with an objective person and discuss ahead of time some options for making this work for you. Role-play various scenarios with a professional if possible and identify what it is about this person that upsets you.
  • Become aware of how unhappy/traumatic memories impact the holidays. If you associate the holidays with unhappy times, then the holidays can bring it all back.

Are there other issues that add to family stress during the holidays?  

Yes. In addition to what was discussed previously, tough issues that get even tougher over the holidays include the following:

  • With such a high percentage of marriages ending in divorce, there can be the additional stress of shared custody of children and who will have the children for which holidays and how the time will be divided.
  • Some people postpone ending a relationship around the holidays because they do not want to be alone. Being “single” around the holidays can be quite difficult and the anticipation of celebrating without someone special is seen and felt as depressing. New Year’s Eve, in particular, is sometimes the most difficult for some people.
  • Alcohol/drug use often rises during holiday periods, ironically in part to cope with the stress of holidays; for individuals in recovery, relapse rates often rise.
  • With the pressure of “so much to do in such a small period of time,” we hear more complaints of exhaustion, sleeping less, doing more and feeling overextended. This combination leads to lowered body defenses and increases cold/flu-like symptoms.

What are the main family issues you see in your practice?

The Faculty and Staff Help Center sees individuals with a variety of issues. The majority of people seen here come in with relationship issues (primarily adult relationship issues, but also parent/child and/or family issues), closely followed by emotional issues such as depression, anxiety, self-esteem, anger management, grief/loss, job stress, work-life balance and elder care issues. While we see most anyone dealing with stressors in their life, if we’re not able to see them we provide referrals and resources.

... any final thoughts?

In a 12-step recovery program, there’s an acronym, HALT, which stands for hungry, angry, lonely, tired. If any one of these describes your demeanor, you are at risk for relapse. I think this can be applied to anyone at any time, but especially during the holidays. When you feel any one of these, take time to stop, breathe, and take care of yourself — and the holidays will be much more enjoyable and manageable!

Interview conducted by Julie Croteau and edited by Lane McKenna.