Family Drama? How to Protect Your Emotional Health During the Holidays

Are your memories of holidays past viewed through a nostalgic fog?

Many of us view our childhood holiday gatherings in an almost reverent light, which makes it seem like holidays as an adult often don’t measure up.

Jean Holthaus is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and clinic manager with West Michigan-based Pine Rest. She recently offered some advice on how to realign our holiday expectations, as well as how to deal with prickly situations family gatherings often bring to light during a mental health talk put on by Pine Rest Connect.

Understanding your family’s reality is an important first step in realizing whether interactions are healthy or unhealthy. Because we grow up with our family, behavior that might not be so healthy often isn’t recognized because it’s so familiar.

Holthaus explained that emotionally health families set realistic expectations and realize that adults have the right and responsibility to make their own decisions – about the holidays or otherwise. Unhealthy families often hold rigid expectations about behavior and use manipulation, blame and guilt to keep others in line.

Holthaus said you have control when it comes to how your family makes you feel.

“Guilt trips only work if you’re willing to buy in,” she said.

Borrowing from Marsha Linehan’s four coping strategies, Holthaus outlined ways people can react to family emotional conflict:

  1. Solve the problem
  2. Change your perception of the problem
  3. Accept the situation
  4. Stay miserable

If the family situation isn’t one that a single gathering will solve, Holthaus recommended focusing on the second and third options – changing your perception and working on acceptance.

Changing your perception of the problem isn’t the same as denying there is a problem, Holthaus explained. It’s shifting focus to what you can do to cope with the situation. Perhaps there’s an opportunity for growth, she said. For example, if you always respond with anger to a relative’s political views, perhaps this year you can choose to remove yourself from the conversation instead, or simply refuse to engage. You can also attempt to change the topic to more neutral territory.

Accepting the situation doesn’t mean you agree with it, but it’s another way to change the way you react to it. It’s really thinking through what it is and understanding without judging. She gave the example of a family member who drinks too much. You know it’s going to happen, you know it’s going to annoy you, so what are steps you can take to respond with empathy and kindness, instead of hurt feelings and anger?

Before this year’s holiday gatherings, plan for how you’re going to deal with your expectations and for how you’ll react to common family emotional struggles. Tell a trusted family member beforehand and plan to debrief with them afterward to talk about how it went. You can even role play ahead of time if the situation is that stressful and you’re worried you’ll lose your resolve.

Families can be a great source of strength and comfort. They can also be one of the biggest sources of emotional pain. No matter your personal situation, know how to protect your emotions and work to have the most joyful holiday you can.

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Photo credit: Antonio Guillem

Editor’s note: The author of this post is a Pine Rest Connect board member. 

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