For some, the phrase “Happy Holidays” brings about images of smiling faces, fun-filled memories, and feelings of joy. For others, the holidays are associated with family conflict, disappointment, and sadness. And for many, the holidays invoke all of the above. The point is, the holiday season is not always happy and oftentimes this is in part due to complex family relationships.
Many different factors impact family relationships. As we age, we continue to develop our own identities separate from our family of origin, which can mean differences in opinions, values, and/or lifestyles. When we go home for the holidays it is common to slip back into old family patterns of interaction and communication. For example, someone gets pulled into a conversation about politics that quickly turns into a disagreement and suddenly they revert to old patterns of behavior, such as yelling or giving the cold shoulder. While it’s not bad to be different from each other, when you place a bunch of adults with different personalities together under the same roof for several days and sprinkle in some deeply ingrained dysfunctional patterns of interacting, you get the perfect recipe for conflict and stress–and possibly a meltdown of epic, Chevy Chase proportions.
So what can we do to prevent our vacation from turning into the plot of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation? Although you can’t change an entire family system in one day, you can make a significant improvement in your own personal experience through several different strategies.
1. Setting boundaries: One way to prevent yourself from getting sucked into conflict is to set boundaries around certain topics of conversation. Before heading home, think about the “hot topics” in your household. Are you comfortable sharing your opinion or engaging in conversation about these topics? If so, with whom? If not, give yourself permission to politely end a conversation or change the subject.
2. Take breaks: If your boundaries aren’t being respected, or you notice yourself feeling overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to take a break. Going for a walk, stepping outside for some fresh air, sitting in a quiet room, or even taking a lengthier bathroom break are some ways to give yourself some physical space to take some deep breaths and regroup.
3. Self-care: Of course we are talking about self-care, because it is so important in maintaining your mental health. Self-care comes in various forms – engaging in hobbies like reading or knitting, making time for exercise, healthy eating, getting a massage, or whatever else may work for you. Before going home, think about your different forms of self-care and make plans for how and when you can take time to engage in these activities.
4. Balance: Socializing nonstop can feel draining regardless of how healthy your relationships are. Even the biggest extroverts have a limit for socializing with others. Try to find a balance of making time for friends, family, and yourself by being mindful of how much time you are spending with others and how that impacts your mood. Check in with yourself several times a day and notice how you are feeling. If you’re noticing more tension than relaxation, then chances are you might need to rebalance the scale.
These tips can help you feel more in control of your time and experiences within your relationships during the holidays and in general. To avoid starring in and directing more dysfunctional family movie sequels, therapy is a great place to learn more ways to make meaningful long-term changes in your family relationships. Consider seeing a therapist to work on identifying your own personal values and how they differ or relate to your family, processing past hurts and resentments, and improving communication and interactions with your loved ones in the future.
Katie Strickland, PsyD is a clinical psychologist at Cambridge Psychology Group who works with older adolescents and adults of all ages. She especially enjoys helping people navigate relational issues through individual and couples therapy.