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. However, excitement about celebrating the holidays is often tempered by an underlying fear of “how will we ever survive another family party?”
“The truth is, many families have meltdowns at this time of year,” says Brent Pace, LCSW, of Salt Lake City. He and other experts offer the following suggestions for keeping family relations on an even keel.
1. Keep expectations realistic.
“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,” says Pace. “Particularly in consideration of the current financial crisis, rather than seeking the perfect meal [or] the perfect outfit…, we can decide that our goal is to spend time with the people that we love and enjoy each other’s company.”
2. Take care of yourself first.
“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.
3. Simplify your schedule.
“Drop all the to-do lists. Do half of what you anticipate you are going to do,” says Cheryl Wright, Ph.D., Chair, Family and Consumer Studies, University of Utah. “Take time to play those peek-a-boo games with your grandchild and read simple picture books.”
4. Set a positive tone.
Offering compliments is a great way to set the tone for a family gathering, says Pace. “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 and that “we chose to be here and that we want to be with our family.”
5. Avoid arguments.
Take the high road when the holidays 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.”
6. 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 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,'” says Pace. “Then you both walk out to the car together.”
7. 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.”
8. 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.”
9. 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. Some of Pace’s family members volunteer at the homeless shelter. He says, “Instead of worrying about just the right tree and the right lights, we choose to find a family that we can help out.”
10. Take a video break with the grandkids.
Caldwell 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.”