Keep Calm and Merry On

Deck the halls with lots of family – and a hefty portion of holiday stress, too. ‘Tis the season for spending time with siblings, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins that we may not often see – sometimes for days on end in small quarters! There are bound to be a few challenging situations that pop up under these circumstances and we have some expert advice for handling them. Read on for helpful tips on how to keep your “merry-ness” this holiday season.

There’s something about going back to my parent’s house and being around my siblings that seems to make us all revert back to our previous (childish) selves. Although we’re grown adults now with families of our own, those old roles we played as kids (and some of those old hurts) still manifest themselves when we’re together. I know our kids are watching us – and I want to do better. How can I make this holiday go differently?

Holiday regression happens with so many families! When families get together they can fall back into the old habits and roles that were established years ago. It can be easy to slip back into childhood when you are with your parents. There are behavioral patterns that develop in a family that serve to help get things done, so coming back together, it is natural to be pulled into the way that worked for your family for so many years. If you feel like your family dynamics no longer work for your family and are not helpful, the first step is just having this awareness of what is happening. Patterns will continue unless challenged or intentionally changed. The only change you can manage is your own. Consider getting your family together to bring awareness to the situation and problem solve together. Staying mindful every time your family has a gathering. Mindfully speak and act/behave the way you do in your regular life outside of your family get-togethers. Keep up the image you want for yourself. This will take time before change happens. You need consistency and repetition in family gatherings to challenge the falling back into old roles. Treat your family how you would treat your friends. Reverting back to our younger selves happens for the feeling of security, reciprocated love and trust. Remind yourself why you love your family.

Erin Robinson, LPCC
Licensed Professional Counselor
Butler Behavioral Health Services
BeechAcres Parenting Center

I love seeing all my nieces and nephews when we gather together for the holidays, except for one issue. My daughter, who is much younger than her cousins, always seems to get left out of the mix. She wants so much to be included in what they’re doing, but their conversations and interests are just not part of her world now. They’re nice kids and I don’t think they intentionally mean to ignore her, but it happens anyway. It makes it hard for my daughter (and me) to enjoy our time spent with family. What can we do?

Family time at the holidays can be hard. Sometimes it is okay to use these types of situations as “teachable moments” for both your daughter and her older cousins. Talk with your daughter about not taking things personally, although it can feel hurtful. In reality, what we often perceive as a personal affront is not intended to be that; rather, it is people being busy and/or caught up in their own lives. Especially around the holidays, we often get excited and have high expectations and then feel let down. Her older cousins also can learn from this. They can realize how important they are to their younger cousin as a role model and extended family member. Perhaps you can suggest all members of both families do something together such as bowling, hiking in the park, going to a movie, seeing the lights at the zoo, baking, getting coffee, walking the dog, etc. Also, you could have an activity for all the girls to do together (an arts and crafts activity that your daughter likes, nail polish, pearl-a-beads). Give the older cousins a heads up and suggest your desire that they spend a little time together. To this end, you might have a conversation with their parent(s) or text them directly. During the holidays, it can be a balance between doing what we each want and making time for family.  

Sheila S. Cohen, Ph.D.

I’m hosting our big holiday dinner this year and I’m dreading the dinner table conversation I imagine will occur among our guests. Between my family and my husband’s family, we run the gamut of political, religious and social views – and many of those who will be in attendance are known to voice their beliefs very passionately. How do I keep sparks from flying and shift the focus to just celebrating the season together?/h5>

Family holiday time does seem to have drama! Since you are hosting this year you can always send out a notification to everyone who will attend ahead of time setting ground rules and expectations. You can be honest with everyone and say how you would like to avoid heated, controversial conversations/topics because you want a peaceful evening catching up on everyone’s lives. Let them know the evening you are hoping for so they can keep it in mind when choosing what to talk about. If that doesn’t work and it is totally unavoidable, you can turn the debates into friendly conversations by saying “Let’s not try and change people’s minds, maybe just say why this is important to you.” Redirect conversations into something personal and positive. Just change the subject. Use humor to avoid serious controversial talk. Also, just keep reminding yourself that you cannot control other people and they are choosing to participate in this conversation for a reason. You can choose to create the feeling you want for yourself for the holidays.

Erin Robinson, LPCC
Licensed Professional Counselor
Butler Behavioral Health Services
BeechAcres Parenting Center

My brother’s family goes all out for the holidays when it comes to presents with an unbelievable stockpile under the tree. My kids are of the age now that they notice the difference between the amount of gifts they receive versus what their cousins receive. I can’t very well ask my brother to reduce what he wants to give his children, but it does make for some uncomfortable moments on Christmas morning. What’s the best way to handle this?

Ahhh yes, the joys of Christmas! Kids are very susceptible to making meaning about themselves based on what they see others have and the potential lack of what they have. To soften the blow to your kids you might want to talk with them beforehand about the obvious discrepancies they are seeing in the presents and toys they are getting compared to their cousins. Be careful not to shame or blame your brother or his family as in doing so, you are possibly creating unneeded tension and labeling. Good lessons for children to learn this season are: the original meaning of Christmas, being grateful for what you have, helping the less fortunate and the real joy of spending time together with family. How you approach it will have a lasting impact on your kids, so remember to attend to your own potential insecurities and past resentments you might have with your brother. Come from an honest and loving place and you’ll do fine.

John Harrison, Licensed Mental Health Counselor
Life Made Conscious
Located in Pleasant Ridge

There’s no denying that the stress and pressure that often accompanies the holidays can bring out the “bah humbug” in us. To make your season more “merry and bright” set realistic expectations for time spent with family and think ahead about situations you anticipate being difficult and how you can address them. Then, enjoy this special time of year in whatever ways are meaningful to you. Happy holidays!

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