A Family Survival Guide For the Holidays

Family + Friends

Maud Purcell 200x200
Maud Purcell, Coach & Corporate Consultant

By Maud Purcell

Are you naively entering the holiday season while “visions of sugarplums dance in your head”?  Are you dreaming of idyllic family get-togethers, knowing full well that your holidays with kin haven’t been harmonious in seasons past?

The problem with the holiday season is that we foolishly hope for a better outcome each time we gather with family, even though we’re approaching it the same old way.  This expectation is a set-up for disappointment, and for the onset of an “emotional hangover” and even guilt in the aftermath of the holiday season.  Here are some emotional traps to which we unwittingly fall prey:

  • We fail to realize that whatever painful and dysfunctional family dynamics existed when we were kids, most likely persist today.
  • We forget that despite how much we love our family members, closeness can breed contempt.
  • We don’t understand that no matter how successful or happy our adult lives, we may always feel like children (and insecure, incompetent, angry or invisible ones at that) in the context of family.

The great news is that you can make this holiday season the most harmonious and rewarding one ever. Here’s how you can start --

1.) Admit to yourself that your family (and that includes you) is imperfect, and that years of ignoring this reality have only brought you sadness, anger and frustration.

2.) Think carefully about the specific situations that typically push your emotional buttons, then, create exit strategies. For example --

  • Are you annually ribbed for being the least athletic at the family touch football game?  If so, why not arrive after the game is over, or declare yourself the cheering squad rather than tacitly agreeing to become the team’s tight end?
  • If your Aunt Marge’s house gives you the “heebie jeebies,” reserve a hotel room nearby and tell Aunt Marge you have important work-related conference calls, which require that you stay somewhere separate from all of the “fun” and festivities.  Or bring your dog along and stay at a pet-friendly inn, knowing that your aunt won’t take in your mutt when she’s already pampering her toy poodle!
  • In case family tension requires a quick get-away, have a vehicle on hand so you can run out to the store for that “toothbrush” you forgot.  Or bring your running sneaks and calm yourself down with a brisk walk or run.  Those endorphins will help calm your frayed nerves and give you an escape hatch when the going gets tough.
  • When the same old irritating conversations and remarks come up, employ those great theatrical skills you’ve perfected for job interviews.   No matter what you are feeling, act as if it’s not getting to you.
  • Avoid conversational “land mines,” and when someone else steps on one, excuse yourself because of that “frog” in your throat, or speck of dust in your eye.

3.) Bring along a ”family holiday survival kit,” which may include interesting topics of conversation to use as needed (but please avoid religion and politics!), favorite movies and games, and a list of potential activities -- including walks, museum hopping, shopping or sightseeing. Volunteering together at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen can bring depth and perspective to your relationships.  Let your mind run wild; anything that keeps the family active and preferably outside of old familiar settings can provide an opportunity for positive and meaningful interaction. And when you are actually doing something, there’s much less room for interpersonal conflict to arise.

Most importantly, prepare yourself for the worst.  Although this may sound pessimistic, it will allow you to be pleasantly surprised when with the help of the suggestions above, you wind up having the best family holiday season ever!

Maud Purcell, MSW, LCSW, CEAP, is a skilled and seasoned psychotherapist, as well as a trained Coach and Corporate Consultant. She is the owner of Maud Purcell & Associates Inc., and she writes a regular column for The Stamford Advocate, Greenwich Time, The Danbury Times and CT Post Newspapers.

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  • Great article - I love the idea of being honest with youself and admitting nobody's family is perfect. How liberating!

    Posted by HeatherWellness, 21 December 2009.