Four Strategies for Handling Difficult Family Situations during the Holidays

Friday, December 23, 2016
Spoiler alert: There may be some difficult family conversations and situations over the coming holidays. Families are a blend of varying personalities each with their own set of expectations about what the family holiday gathering should be. According to Cynthia Mulder, LCSW, the pressure, stress and conflicts may be inevitable and avoidance can potentially add even more tension to the situation.
"People bring a lot of expectations into the holiday season and some go into it with an idealized view of the perfect gathering or event that’s never attainable," said Mulder, who is the director of education and training at Menninger. "One common expectation that can pose a lot of challenge is that everything or everyone during the holidays should be joyous, and that everyone should get along. The reality is that many family members may also be dealing with painful situation such as sadness, grief or general anxiety and need support."
Mulder points out that the gap between expectations and reality poses four common challenges among family members during the holidays. She’s shares four strategies to overcome those challenges below:
Perfectionism - Striving for perfection can cause discord during holiday gatherings. From agonizing over the gift exchange to laboring in the kitchen over family favorites, perfectionism in these areas creates added stress. Unrealistic expectations can then lead to certain family members feeling sad or disappointed, ruining the holiday spirit for everyone.
  • Coping Strategy: Pinpoint your own perfectionism and realize that feelings of shame, insecurity and inadequacy are activated. Recognize that things rarely are 100 percent perfect and identify what would make this a "good-enough" holiday. For example, if a certain family member decides not to attend the holiday dinner, but calls with well wishes, is that good enough? Mulder adds, "The goal is to have a more resilient spirit and to bounce back quickly when things don’t go as planned. If the gift received wasn’t perfect, or you didn’t like the reaction of the person who opened your gift, try to focus on the intention of the gift. Yes, it wasn’t perfect, but the person made an effort and what’s really important is the expression of love and connection that was shown." Practicing self kindness and self compassion are vital to combatting perfectionism.
Confrontation - Many have family members with strong personalities. There can be a tendency to believe that everyone needs to get along with each other when in reality that often increases stressful situations. The forced "togetherness" can create conflict itself. The goal isn’t absence of confrontation, but is healthy conflict resolution.
  • Coping Strategy: Agree in advance to not engage in topics that have become heated in the past. Also create topic-free zones. Perhaps the family can agree to not talk about politics or if the conversation gets heated to "hit pause." "When conflicts or disagreements occur, operate from a place of empathy, caring, understanding and respect. Oftentimes, listening is all that’s needed to validate feelings and move a conversation forward," said Mulder.
Comparison - Holidays can be fraught with comparison. "Who got the better gift?" "Whose mashed potatoes taste the best?" "Is this year’s family get together going to be as fun as last year’s?" "That family looks like they really like each other."
  • Coping Strategy: Step back and consider how the holidays connect with what you value. Identify what’s most important to you and your loved ones and connect with them around those things. "It’s easy to let the past seep into the present, but try to live in the moment and enjoy it," said Mulder. "Don’t get caught in the stress of isolated situations, but realize that compromise really is the best strategy." Also reflecting on gratitude can be an important way to bring feelings of joy.
Numbing Behaviors - The phrase "eat, drink and be merry” sums up holiday behavior for many families, but any of these in excess can become numbing behaviors. When something does not go as planned, conflict arises or expectations aren’t met, family members can over eat, drink too much or, worse, go into isolation because of too much "togetherness."
  • Coping Strategy: There should be a balanced approach to meals, drinking and family time. Mulder says, "Too much of any of these may lead to problems. Mindfully plan together time and separate time. Don’t assume the worst when people want to go off and do their own thing. Consider everyone’s preferences and allow multiple family members to pitch in with the planning and execution to help ensure a truly merry holiday."
In addition to the situational strategies, setting clear boundaries and role playing can help ease anxiety and lessen the pressures of the holidays. Mulder also adds that increasing self-compassion during the holidays is important.
"If we’re kind to ourselves, it will be easier for us to be gentle and non-judgmental with others," said Mulder. "The key ingredients to all of these strategies are empathy, compassion and respect. Practice these and you’ll make it through the holidays with genuine love and cheer for family and friends."