It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Or…is it? The truth is that many people have a difficult time during the holiday season. The fantasy of a cookie-cutter perfect holiday experience can be derailed by various stressors: the pressures of family gatherings, finances, overeating, and drinking…and things do not always turn out as festive. At the same time, the holidays are also an opportunity to build resilience by implementing coping strategies.
The first thing you should do is plan ahead and recognize your triggers. If finances are a trigger, create a budget and stick to it. If you are concerned about overindulging or drinking too much, implement a healthy routine of sleep, diet, and exercise. If you have challenging in-laws, take some time to think about how you can plan to respond to them differently. For instance, if your mother-in-law tends to ask intrusive questions about giving her a second grandchild, be gracious and reassure her that she will be the first to know.
Which home for the holidays?
Deciding whose family to spend the holidays with can be a point of contention between you and your partner; what’s most important is that you and your partner can come to an agreement and be supportive of each other. These factors can be helpful to take into account:
- Family dynamics: If a family member is ill or aging, it may be a good idea to spend time with them this year
- Budget: If your parents live across the country, plan whether you can afford to travel with your family
- Time: How much time can you or your spouse take off from work?
- Fairness: Do you see one family more than the other?
Coping with challenging relatives at family gatherings
The good news is that everyone typically has a distinct pattern of interaction. If Dad is constantly concerned about finances, he will likely bring it up during your visit, so plan your responses. For example, ask him nicely to revisit this topic after the holiday season, and bring up a lighter topic instead. Or, if your mother-in-law constantly brings up the subject of how you’re raising your special-needs child, calmly tell her that you are taking the appropriate steps to help your child, and that you prefer to enjoy the family the way it is now.It is also important to realize that, if you have difficult in-laws, being critical of them with your partner will likely only make them feel that you’re attacking their family. Try to be supportive of one another, and practice some dialogues at home to prepare for such interactions. In addition, work on accepting family members for who they are, not who you would like them to be. It can be helpful to create a ‘Teflon’ mindset: let their comments slide off, and recognize that their statements reveal more about them than about you. The truth is thatyou can’t control others, but you can control your actions. Set healthy boundaries and practice mindfulness techniques to ground yourself in the present moment.
- Preparation:Kids thrive on predictability, so describe the scene: how many people will be at the party, who they are, etc. (for example, Uncle Jim likes the TV on loud). The more details the better: paint a picture so they feel prepared prior to the event.
- Discuss physical boundaries: Mention that relatives will most like hug them, and ask your child how they feel about that. If your child does not like it, encourage your child to advocate for themselves.
- Review house rules: For example, can they have their iPad? Do kids have to stay in the play area?
- Socially anxious children: Role-play how they might answer questions about school, activities, and what topics they can discuss.
- Sensitive child: If your child is sensitive to loud noises or crowds, establish ‘check-in’ or ‘getaway spots’ for your child to recharge.
Holidays sometimes bring up painful memories that can lead to sadness. Try to practice self-compassion: allow yourself to feel the sadness, and engage in self-care.Pushing away feelings doesn’t help. If you are grieving a recent death of a loved one, perhaps you might take out photos and remember positive memories. Create a new tradition remembering the person who died. Make a toast in their honor. Letting the people who love you know that holidays are difficult for you gives them a chance to support you.
Research supports the notion that the more generous we are, the better we feel. Set an intention in the morning to be giving that day. For example, if a friend is having a difficult time, send a note to let them know you’re thinking of them. Practice shifting your attention to what is going well instead of what is not.
Remember, the holidays are meant to be a time for family, friends, and deeper connections, so know your triggers and prepare for them in advance to ensure you can enjoy the holidays.
Dr. Judith Zackson is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Greenwich, CT. She works with clients of all ages who are dealing with anxiety, depression, relationship and parenting issues. She lives in Greenwich with her husband and two children.