Family holiday gatherings are highly anticipated, stringently planned for and frequently emphasized in American popular culture.
Countless holiday movies feature a gorgeous family gathered ’round an even more gorgeous and perfectly cooked turkey.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, right?
Except when it’s not. Maybe your family is less Norman Rockwell and more Clark Griswold.
Maybe you have an uncle who consumes too much spiked eggnog, a brother-in-law who still owes you money — or a sister-in-law who is so focused on her clothes and hair she can’t understand a thing about anyone else.
“The Christmas get-together may be that one time a year when you are forced to interact with unpleasant family members, and your past history with those family members, too, which maybe is not a positive one,” said Americo Mello, a clinical psychologist with Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Massachusetts.
“But there are a few things you can do to manage the expectations and stresses that come with the holiday get-together.”
You can adopt a particular mindset on the ride over, or better yet, do so in the days before the family party.
“It will be helpful to remember that you can’t change other people, and even if some change is possible, it probably is not going to happen at the Christmas party,” said Mello.
“It’s also helpful to be prepared for the stress, ready for the behaviors that are unpleasant or upsetting.”
Most Susceptible to Stress? Guess Who?
“Working mothers are susceptible to stress related to the family get-together, as are those who are divorced and widowed, and anyone experiencing financial difficulties,” said Mello. “Also, older people, or those who aren’t well physically, may feel stress leading up to the family get-together.
“Interestingly, we see a high stress level in people who live in cities — the noise and crowds are sometimes tough to take, and raise the stress level heading into the event,” he said.
“I literally have a meltdown every time it is my turn to host,” said one New York mother of two. “I seem to go to that worst possible scenario, and begin to believe that this is the year the big blowout will happen. Plus, I’m so tired from cooking and cleaning that by the time the dinner arrives, my defenses are low.”
Mello understands this sentiment, and says there are two areas we can fix if we are dreading the family gathering.
First, change our behaviors leading up to ‘the big day,’” he said.
“Prior to the gathering, engage in calming behaviors — especially exercise. Take a walk, or practice meditation. This will prepare your mind for the family gathering.”
At the event itself, avoid potentially upsetting interactions.
“There’s nothing wrong with slipping out of the room during an unpleasant or tense conversation, or joining others to watch a movie or just relax,” said Mello.
“Also, don’t feel pressured to offer a comment about anything — take a few deep breaths and let it go.”
Next, we can change our thinking about the family gathering.
“Don’t expect anything that is probably unrealistic — your uncle may still drink too much, your nephews may still fight over the remote. Accept that some things don’t change,” Mello said.
Remembering to take a long view when it comes to the Christmas gathering is also helpful.
Keep in mind that any discomfort the holiday brings is temporary — the event will end,” he said.
Making new traditions is also an option.
“If it makes sense for your family, opt out of the family party altogether and do something on your own. Start a positive tradition and skip this event that makes you anxious and isn’t good for you,” he said.
One Massachusetts wife and mother of three opted out of Thanksgiving several years ago, and said that doing so has worked wonders for her stress level.
“For the past two years we haven’t gone to the big family get-together, but instead take in a movie and have our own turkey dinner, just the five of us. I now really look forward to Thanksgiving, and so do my kids!”
If you do attend the family shindig, keep things positive for the few hours you’re all under one roof.
“Try to remember why you are gathered together, and focus on that,” said Mello. “Think about the positive aspects of your family, the love that is there, and keep that uppermost in your mind.”
And remember, soon enough the party will end, and you’ll be saying good-bye. Perhaps you can ruminate on the words of Garrison Keillor in his book “Leaving Home.”
“A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together,” he wrote.
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