The Hallmark movies portraying a picturesque scene of serene family get-togethers can leave you pining for a joyful reunion over the holidays. But real families are much messier than perfectly scripted movies depict. Every family has baggage, conflicts, and personalities that don’t mesh well. Sharing a history doesn’t mean navigating these relationships will be effortless, especially as family members grow and change.
Navigating New Roles From Childhood to Adulthood
Throughout childhood, you develop roles and expectations of behavior within your family – these can be based on gender, birth order, and values. As you grow and establish your sense of self, your roles early in life may not align with who you are now. Struggling to maintain and feel comfortable in your adult identity when you’re with your family of origin is not uncommon, especially when old conflicts resurface.
Spending the holidays with family can present pressure to conform to familiar childhood patterns of behavior. Despite the comfort of familiarity, change is inevitable! Marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, health issues, and other life events shape you and change a family’s dynamic. Keeping balance is complicated because things are constantly changing!
Unrealistic Expectations Cause Extra Stress
On top of change, the expectations you set for yourself, family members, and the holidays can add unnecessary stress. Many people cling to idealizations of what the holidays are “supposed” to be:
- The holidays are supposed to be happy and joyous
- The holidays are supposed to be for sharing time with family and developing deeper connections
- You are supposed to spend the holidays together
These well-intentioned but misguided expectations of what the holidays are “supposed” to be aren’t realistic. Reunions can be sweet, and the holidays can be a meaningful time for joy and connection. Everyone wants to feel a sense of belonging! And after months of separation, many of us are eyeing the season with trepidation. A lot has happened over the last year and a
half, and everyone has changed as a result. By heading into the event with strategies to manage difficult moments, you can better enjoy and appreciate the time spent together.
Be realistic with your expectations of the holidays. It’s not a good idea to use holidays to confront relatives, and you’re unlikely to change your grandpa’s political views or niece’s career choice in one conversation. But you can enjoy catching up with family and sharing laughs. Similarly, approach the event with a sense of realism. If your mother is known to nit-pick the meal or your uncle never fails to make inappropriate jokes, don’t expect them to change habits. You will be disappointed when they don’t live up to your expectations. Instead, aim to have a sense of humor and remind yourself what you love about them.
Focus on What You Have in Common
In today’s polarizing climate, it’s helpful to focus on what brings you together rather than what sets you apart. Make an agreement that certain topics are off-limits, such as politics or religion. Be prepared with subjects you can introduce to strategically divert from divisive conversations. You can say, “I know we all have strong feelings about (topic), but I’d like to keep things relaxed here. Would you mind if we changed the subject? I’d like to hear more about Sam’s new job.” You can reminisce on happy memories, or talk about your shared love of the newest Netflix hit. Finding commonalities enhances our sense of connection, and makes for a better holiday dinner.
Set the Tone
Understand that you can’t control what happens or how your family will behave, but you can control your reaction. If thinking about the holidays raises your stress barometer, be sure to take time for self-care before heading to the dinner table. Go for a long walk, listen to your favorite upbeat music, meditate, or read. Doing so helps boost your emotional resilience, making you less on-edge and reactive. If you go into the meal with a good mood and attitude, things will go smoother for everyone.
Don’t Take It Personally
It’s easy to take things personally, especially when engaging with a relative you don’t see eye to eye with. When disagreements arise and a family member seems bent on creating conflict, view it as a reflection of who they are, not who you are. Imagine seeing all the events and traumas that shaped them. Understand that if someone is rude or overly critical, they may be passing down generational hurt. Their past doesn’t make this treatment okay or acceptable, but it makes it easier for you to understand. If nothing else, try viewing the interaction as a boot camp- it’s patience practice, and the ability to stay non-reactive is a useful skill!
Sometimes it’s better to give combative family members space. Position yourself at the opposite end of the table, or beside other relatives that can act as bumpers. Family events can go awry, especially if alcohol is involved. When you find yourself physically reacting to discomfort, an increased heart rate is an obvious cue, you can change the subject or divert attention by
turning on a football game. If gentle attempts don’t work, it’s okay to step away for a few minutes to gather yourself.
If you’re the center of unresolved conflict, or anticipate a family member will intentionally push your buttons, find a person that can be your ally. This person should understand the nature of the relationship. Agree in advance that when your relative stirs the pot, they will be there to squeeze your hand under the table, pull you aside, and be supportive. If you can find someone who gets along with both parties, they can act as an intermediary peacekeeper to minimize potential conflict.
And Most Importantly, Have Fun!
Most importantly, focus on having fun and enjoying each other’s company! Relax and live in the moment- conversations flow best when people are at ease.
And if a toxic family dynamic is a concern, stay prepared by paying attention to your physical reactions, setting clear boundaries, and planning an exit strategy.