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Category: Holidays / Topics: Christmas Civility Communication Family Holidays Holiday Season

How to Deal with Family During the Holidays

by Ken Potts

Posted: December 23, 2018

The holidays don't always live up to what we imagine them to be…

The family mini van pulls into the drive, making the first path in the new fallen snow.

The air is crisp, the night sky clear, the moonlight glistens off the rooftops. Grandma waves from the front porch, Grandpa and Uncle Ned are already trudging toward the car to help unload the suitcases and brightly wrapped packages

Through the living room window you see a host of other family members gathered around the piano; you can hear the sound of Christmas carols. And there is a light on in the kitchen; your mouth is already watering with the remembered tastes of turkey, sweet potatoes, fresh baked bread, and, of course, pumpkin pie. Or, perhaps ...

You're already three hours late for dinner, what with last night's snowstorm and the ice-covered roads. The kids are fighting in the back seat and you desperately needed a rest stop for the past half-hour.

When you do finally get there, the driveway and street are full of cars and you wind up parking a block away. Slipping and sliding down the sidewalk, little Mary falls in the mud and ruins her second outfit of the day.

Inside, it seems that Dad and brother Ned have been "celebrating" all day and are now sitting in front of the TV surrounded by empty beer cans. And Mom is in the kitchen crying -- she and Dad had another one of those alcohol-fueled arguments that have almost become a holiday tradition. And, to top things off, Dad got violent and threw a good part of the Christmas dinner on the floor.

Probably most of our holidays fall somewhere between the two scenarios. The first, I think, typifies what most of us have come to see as the ideal family celebration. Such a scene is painted time and time again on television, in magazines, in store displays, etc. ... And we have almost come to believe that it really exists.

The second, I'm afraid, is also familiar to many of us. Though I doubt if anyone's holiday is as bad as the one I have described (but some may come close), we all can probably identify with at least part of the scene I've painted.

Though no family gathering will ever live up to our idealized expectations, there are some things we can do to make our holiday celebrations more enjoyable. As the season is upon us, then, let me suggest some of these to you.

1) Have realistic expectations. Miracles seldom happen, even at Christmas. If our family has problems, they will not just go away for the holidays. If anything, holidays can add even more stress around such issues as family finances, in-laws, religious differences, and so on.

We need, then, to go into the holidays expecting our families to be no better (and hopefully no worse) than they normally are. And that goes for us as well. We probably won't feel or act all that much differently than we normally do, either.

2) Discuss our expectations with other family members. If Grandpa is an alcoholic and uses the holidays as an excuse to get plowed, then we not only need to expect that he will do so this year, too, but we need to discuss this with other family members as well.

It is not only OK, but important, for example, that we talk about this with our kids. We will want to use concepts and words that are appropriate to their ages, but we can make their holiday easier, too, if we are open and honest about what to expect.

Likewise, if our marriage is in trouble, it is a good idea to sit down with our spouse and discuss some realistic expectations for our holiday time. Rather than trying to force ourselves to be jovial or affectionate, we can let ourselves off the hook by just agreeing to be pleasant (or at least polite) to each other.

Again, realistic and shared expectations can make holidays a lot easier to get through.

3) Plan to stay for a comfortable length of time (not just as long as possible). Even in the most congenial of families, there is only so much time together we can tolerate. Decide exactly how much time you can handle with your family and plan your visit accordingly. You (and they) will enjoy each other's company a whole lot more that way.

4) Plan alone time during your visit. Get away from things as a family and as an individual. Take the kids out for some fresh air, and get out yourself as well.

Again, you may love your parents, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews dearly, but we all need a break from family togetherness.

5) Accept differences, even when those differences lead to conflict. No two of us think the same, act the same, or expect the same. And this is compounded when we grow up in different families, are part of different generations, and have different ethnic and religious traditions.

Our holiday hopes, expectations and plans will always reflect our own unique background and will always have to be adjusted to take into account the needs and wants of those with whom we celebrate.

For example, let's say our mother-in-law insists that Christmas gifts are always opened on Christmas morning, while our tradition is to do so on Christmas Eve. We may just want to open our own family's gifts privately in the evening and the rest of the family gifts with everybody else the next day.

6) Discuss disagreements; don't try to sweep them under the rug. We all know when an argument is brewing anyway, so we aren't fooling anybody if we try to ignore it.

It is better to just say something like: "I think we disagree, let's talk about it a bit and see what we can work out." Or, "How about if we talk about this later when we've cooled down." Or, even, "Let's just let things be, this is not worth fighting about."

However we do it, we will be better off if we deal with our differences openly and honestly.

7) Be a considerate guest. This may seem rather obvious, but we need to be sensitive to the rules of the homes in which we find ourselves during the holidays.

All families have different rules about such things as where and how children can play (for example, only in the family room), where and when food can be eaten (no in-between meal snacks, no food in the living room), or leaving wet towels on the bathroom floor (probably not a good idea in anybody's house). And when we don't know the rules, it is a good idea to ask.

Following the above guidelines will not guarantee that your holiday celebration will wind up as a Norman Rockwell print, but it should help you and your family to have at least a pleasant time together. Good luck!


Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of SamaraCare Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove, Illinois.

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Posted: December 23, 2018

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