Difficult family? Strategies for your holiday

Difficult family? Strategies for your holiday November 21, 2018

Holidays can be hard. Often, they bring together very different members of the family, who might have incompatible values or competing goals. And as a result, they can be a mess of conflict and sharp criticism.

But you don’t have to give up! Certain strategies can help you navigate your family holiday with grace and resilience. Here are four key tips.

1. Begin with realistic expectations

Often, holiday expectations are sky-high. Family time is supposed to be special, because the time off of work and school should be “worth it.” Rituals and traditions are expected to be perfect, travel blissful, and every meal delicious. Such expectations make conflict more likely, because the stakes of every moment and action feel incredibly high.

In reality, such elevated expectations are unrealistic. Many determining factors are out of your control, starting with simple things like weather and mood. Furthermore, each family member will likely have changed since the previous year. Chances are, some family members hold conflicting values and desires, and will feel the need to discuss them. Someone will likely lose their patience or calm at some point. A dish will probably burn in the oven.

This is part of life, and it doesn’t have to ruin the day! You can be resilient and work through these moments. Take a step back, breathe, and determine what is — and isn’t — under your control. Then, concentrate your energy on the things you can change. Create both an ideal plan and a backup plan. This will help you take unexpected conflict in stride.

2. Care for your health

Holidays don’t just have to be stressful, they can be restorative. You have the chance to get some rest and have a change of pace! Although it’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of hospitality and celebration, don’t let this interfere with your physical and spiritual health. If you’re running on fumes, you won’t have much room to respond with grace and patience when things get hard.

Prioritize your sleep. Make time for daily conversation with the Lord. Get some healthy movement every day. Find some stillness and solitude, some silence. Make sure you’re not just eating Christmas cookies all day long.

When your physical and spiritual needs are taken care of, you’ll have a deeper well to draw from. Routines are particularly powerful here, because we are creatures of habit. Taking care of yourself will promote balance and resilience. This will help you navigate family conflict with greater peace and ease.

3. Give yourself permission to say “no”

Sometimes, there are conversations, events, or responsibilities that you should not engage. It might be a “hot topic” where your values conflict with those of a relative. Maybe it’s a party hosted by a toxic neighbor you’d rather keep at arm’s length. It might be cooking a home-made dessert when you’re already burnt out and exhausted from making the rest of the meal.

Whatever it is, recognize that you can’t do or be everything. An evening in or a store-bought pie are not the end of the world. You are limited. Accept these limitations and see things in perspective.

If you’re going to be present to the conversations, events, and responsibilities you do want to engage, you have to learn to say “no” sometimes. This isn’t being selfish, it’s being realistic! Focus on what you can give, and delegate the rest to others with freedom.

4. Go easy on the alcohol

Alcohol is especially tempting over the holidays. Between loneliness, festive drinks, family pressure, and social customs, it can be hard to say “no” to that extra drink. But think twice before you overindulge. In the brain, alcohol increases the effects of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, and inhibits glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter. This causes sluggish thought, slurred speech, impaired motor functioning, sleepiness, and poor memory. These effects will not be helpful if you’re trying to navigate a difficult family situation.

Relapse and overdose rates skyrocket over the holidays. Sometimes, this is due to using drugs and alcohol to cope with stress. In that case, I recommend seeking professional help. Go to 12-step meetings if that fits in your recovery plan, or talk with your therapist about strategies that don’t include alcohol.

If you decide to avoid alcohol, I recommend going in with a plan. Prepare in advance a phrase you’ll say if someone offers you an unwanted drink. Think about what you’ll order at the bar instead. Remind yourself why you’re choosing not to drink, and remind yourself it’s temporary. You won’t regret it in the morning!

In the end

In the end, conflict and criticism might be inevitable. This isn’t the end of the world. Take it as an opportunity to learn about yourself and your family members. Welcome the suffering as the chance to grow closer to One who gave His life for us, so that we might become His Father’s adopted children.

Further reading recommendations

Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude have some beautiful passages about gratitude.

To celebrate the day, listen to Tavener’s Magnificat:

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