We all have holiday dreams. Mental pictures of the perfect gathering probably include delicious food, classy decorations, gifts that make our children and grandchildren exclaim with joy, and time to relax and make memories. Excitement about celebrating the holidays is often tempered by a secret, underlying fear of “How will we ever survive another family party?” Along with the demands of attending events, buying gifts and decorating the home is the expectation that we will attend gatherings with relatives.
We might feel that our family experiences more tension and conflict than others, in thinking that every other family is perfect. “We often compare our ‘inside’ reality with their apparent ‘outside’ perfection,” says Brent Pace, LCSW, of Salt Lake City. When it comes to experiencing seasonal strife, says Pace, “the truth is, we are all like that, and many families have meltdowns at this time of year.” He and other experts offer the following suggestions for surviving the holidays and keeping family relations on an even keel during this potentially stressful season.
Keep expectations realistic.
The holidays are a time of high expectations and high tension, says Pace. “There’s often an unspoken goal of making this Christmas better than last year along with living up to previous traditions. It’s important to keep expectations realistic-not that we can’t hope to have happy time,” says Pace. “We need to realize that we are not here to try to outspend each other or show each other our love through the gifts we give. We can lower out expectations and realize that everything doesn’t have to be picture-perfect. Particularly in consideration of the current financial crisis, rather than seeking the perfect meal, the perfect outfit and the perfect Santa, we can decide that our goal is to spend time with the people that we love and enjoy each other’s company.”
Take care of yourself first.
During the holidays, while you are taking care of everybody and everything else, take a few minutes every day to take care of you, too. “Whatever it takes-a few minutes alone, a manicure, a walk, a haircut, exercise with a friend, a bubble bath, or reading a chapter or two of a good book-a few minutes to yourself every day will make all the difference for everyone,” says Sherri Caldwell, founder of rebelhousewife.com.
Simplify your schedule.
Take a step back when you need to say “no” and feel free to say no when you sense you are overbooking your schedule, says Pace. “Celebrating doesn’t mean you need to abuse your body. You can also make plans around how much you are going to eat or drink at the party.”
Simplifying expectations and demands may help parents and grandparents keep quality time at a priority during the hectic holidays says Cheryl Wright, Ph.D., Chair, Family and Consumer Studies, University of Utah. “Christmas is a time to drop all the to-do lists. Do half of what you anticipate you are going to do,” says Wright. “Take time to play those peek-a-boo games with your grandchild and read simple picture books.”
Relax and let things happen.
The holidays may be a sad, lonely and isolated time because of an “anniversary reaction,” says Pace. “If someone passed away during the holidays, they can remain a grim reminder. Too, the holidays may remind us of people in our family who have died. We may think, ‘I remember when Dad was here’ or ‘I remember when Grandma had the party at her house,’ he says. Because of this potential sadness, Pace advises, “Be gentle with yourself and your family. Sometimes we only get to see certain family members once a year. If this is that time, rather than concentrating on the perfect pumpkin pie, be sure to spend time just talking.”
Set a positive tone.
Offering compliments is a great way to set the tone for a family gathering, says Pace, who advises, “Always look for the positive.” He adds that humor is also a wonderful tool to keep people at ease. He also suggests reminding ourselves that a family gathering is a rare occasion that may never take place again. “We can remind ourselves that we chose to be here and that we want to be with our family. Think thoughts such as “This could be the last time I get to have this experience,” or “This may be the last year I get to be with my sister,” he says.
Lose the battle to win the war.
The holidays are a time to take the high road, says Pace. “If we are competitive and have sibling rivalry, this isn’t a bad time to set those disagreements aside and agree to disagree. In the long run, you are better off at the end of the night if you keep the peace rather than getting engaged in conflict and heated discussions when all of the holiday pressures come to bear,” says Pace.
Do your best to avoid arguments.
The holidays may bring people together who are on different sides of the political aisle or have differing opinions on child-rearing. “We don’t have to go to every fight we’re invited to,” says Pace.
He suggests avoiding the words, always, never and ever. “These are fighting terms in relationships generally-a way of throwing down the gauntlet with statements such as ‘You always say that’ or ‘You’re always the one who ruins the party.’ Instead, he advises, “Use ‘I feel’ messages to show how we feel and talk about our feelings. That way, we own a statement. It’s ours and we aren’t accusing the other person of causing the problem.”
Offer yourself an escape.
Use the “buddy system” to ask your spouse or another family member to help stave off potential arguments by facilitating your escape. “If they see you getting upset or red in the face, they can pull you aside and remind you that it’s not worth it to get mad, that you’ve had that issue for seven years and it isn’t going to get resolved tonight.” If your buddy sees you are already in the middle of an argument, they can use a code word or phrase, such as ‘we left that package out in the car,’ to allow you to escape the situation, says Pace. “Then you both walk out to the car together.”
He adds that every house has a sanctuary: the bathroom. “If you find yourself in the middle of an argument or need to get your wits about yourself, you can always go to that place, lock the door and regroup. You can remind yourself of what really matters.”
Consider a shorter visit.
If you are planning to visit a family member and expect the experience to be “a little risky” because of tension or conflict, shorten the visit in advance, Pace advises. “Rather than going to dinner together, say something to indicate that the available time is limited, such as ‘we have to be across town in an hour’ and offer to stop by for a few minutes. Keeping the visit shorter instantly decreases the chance of a problem.
Never discipline someone else’s children.
Pace says that although this advice sounds obvious, it’s amazing how many family fights he’s seen when this happens. “If the kids are obnoxious, let the parents take care of it.”
Consider helping someone else.
With the increased number of foreclosures and increasing numbers of homeless people, there are more people than ever who could use help during the holiday season. Within recent years, some of Pace’s family members have chosen to avoid competitive and expensive gift-giving by volunteering at the homeless shelter. “Instead of worrying about just the right tree and the right lights, we choose to find a family that we can help out.”
Take a video break with the grandkids.
If grandchildren or other extended family members are staying with you for a few days during the holidays, give yourself and the kids a break and turn on the TV, says Caldwell. She suggests grandparents pop a bag of popcorn and snuggle up with the kids for quality holiday time. “It’s the only time of year that TV stations play the wholesome family classics such as Frosty the Snowman and The Grinch almost 24 hours daily. If you don’t have them on video or DVD, get them,” suggests Caldwell.