The holiday season is here, a time for gifts and good cheer. But this time of year is also often fraught with family drama. Yes, the season that's supposed to be full of love and light can sometimes feel tense. But instead of dreading the holidays and canceling your plans altogether, prepare yourself so you can handle stressful family situations and even carve out special moments.
*Expect the Expected
Family holiday gatherings can be very predictable: the same foods, the same jokes and the same people. "You know Uncle Frank is going to be there, and you know how's he going to behave -- he does pretty much the same thing every year," says family therapist Raffi Bilek, director of the Baltimore Therapy Center.
Bilek warns against thinking this year will be any different. Doing so could leave you disappointed. He suggests expecting that people and situations will be the same and acknowledging there's little you can do to change people. Instead, focus on how you react and what you can do to make things go a little smoother.
"Whether it's avoiding the topics you know will set him off, smiling and nodding your way through dinner, or simply avoiding him as much as you can, realistic expectations will help you manage the time with him as best you can," he says. Acceptance of your family members is key, and you have a choice in how you respond.
In addition to family time, there are many demands from all directions during the holidays. Setting boundaries allows you to focus on the real meaning of the season and enjoy the moments, no matter how others behave.
Entrepreneur Ben Taylor, who's married with two kids, works hard to minimize stressful family relations and maximize good ones. "As someone with a very complicated family with plenty of stand-offs and estrangement, the best advice I can give for the holiday season is to be strict and firm about who you spend the bulk of your time with," he says.
Taylor recommends visiting or hosting the more "challenging" people before the holiday so you don't spend your days worrying about the situation. "The season is over very quickly," he says. "There's simply no point in ruining it with forced interactions, so keep them short and make it about the people who matter the very most."
Carrie Krawiec, a family therapist at the Birmingham Maple Clinic, notes that everyone comes to the table with their own emotions, opinions and ideals: "At holidays, boundaries can be blurred because of extended time together, close proximity, lots of expectations -- either about a perfect holiday or about family values, other family members with 'no filter' or otherwise too loose or too rigid boundaries."
Her best advice is to plan ahead what you'll do if your boundaries are pushed. (Hint, if you feel guilty or resentful, chances are they're being pushed.) Then plan your time based on potential stressors. For example, if you need personal space, stay at a hotel, instead of with family. If a family member has a drinking problem, don't stay late, when guests typically have had too much alcohol.
And besides setting boundaries for yourself, it's OK to make them clear to others. "You may say, 'it's unacceptable to use racially derogatory words in front of our family and if someone does we will politely excuse ourselves and leave,'" says Krawiec. "In the event it happens, it doesn't have to be a guilt laden outburst. You can calmly get up and grab things and quietly leave. Their right to their behavior is theirs. Your right to yours is yours." Check in with yourself and your loved ones ahead of time to know what works for you.
*Find an Ally
There's no need to go it alone this season. Buddy up with a family member you're close with or who has similar priorities so you can navigate family drama together.
"Enlist an ally like your spouse or sibling, if you need a safe word or code of sorts so you can make your exit or even take a brief break," says Krawiec. Help each other recognize triggers and warning signs that the family interaction is too much. And if a stressful situation arises, take a break, such as going to the bathroom or stepping outside for some fresh air.
Experiencing more joy than stress throughout family holidays is all about healthy boundaries, self-awareness and communication. There might still be some uncomfortable moments, but practice these tools and no humbugs will ruin your plans.