While the holidays are often depicted as a magical time, full of warmth and support, they can be a significant source of stress and conflict. This is particularly true if your family is undergoing a difficult transition, change, or loss. Spending time with family members who are critical, drink excessively, or argue frequently can also cause holiday gatherings to be a source of significant stress. Identifying the causes of family stress, as well as planning a few ways to cope, can help you avoid becoming depressed and stressed about your family gathering.
What Factors May Contribute to Stressful Family Gatherings?
Some common sources of family stress include:
• Recent Loss or Relationship Breakup: Families who have recently lost a loved one, or where the parents have recently separated or divorced, are under enormous pressure. Family gathering which occurs after these events may be more tense than usual.
• Old Patterns Don’t Always Change: Sometimes we hope that our families will significantly change old patterns at special holiday gatherings. However, if your family has always argued frequently, or there are conflicts which have existed for years, it is unlikely that these old wounds will heal simply because it is a holiday. Often it is safer to anticipate that old tensions will still be present, rather than hoping they will magically disappear.
• Excessive Use of Alcohol: For some families, holiday gatherings include drinking. Alcohol causes us to lose some of our normal inhibitions, and may make people more likely to say hurtful things or act in provocative ways.
• Financial Hardships, Illnesses, or Other Stressors: Significant sources of life stress may coincide with a holiday gathering. If these things put a damper on people’s mood for a particular gathering, try to keep some perspective on the fact that their impact is real and cannot just be wished away.
Tips for Coping With Stressful Families
Every family is different, and what works for one person may not work for everyone. However, some ideas for coping with a difficult family during the holiday include the following:
• Stay Close to Those Who Support You: If particular family members are highly critical of you, or are known to cause you lots of stress, try to limit your time with them. Stay close to family members that make you comfortable. Asking someone you trust to take a walk or help you out of a situation may be a good idea.
• Limit Use of Alcohol: Alcohol impairs our judgment and may blur or intensify our emotional reactions. Rarely is excessive use of alcohol helpful to anyone in managing a tense family situation.
• Drive Your Own Car and Set a Time Limit: For many people, it is more helpful to leave a stressful family situation early than to stay until things become unbearable. It may be comforting to you to have your own vehicle and to know that you can leave whenever you need to.
• If You Can’t Change Others, Change Yourself: As much as we sometimes wish, we are for the most part, powerless to change the behavior of other people. Yet, often we go to a holiday gathering expecting others to change. Ask yourself what you can do differently to avoid tension producing interactions. You may be surprised at how much better you feel when you focus on your behavior rather than the behavior of others.
• Don’t Expect a Miracle: Rather than expecting miracles, it is probably safest to keep your expectations very realistic. Stressful families rarely turn themselves around during a single holiday gathering.