Coping with family stress during the holidays can seem like a given. Many of us anticipate that family will get on our nerves, make us upset, or get us angry. Understanding that stress, especially during the holidays, will happen, then coping with family stress becomes more manageable and doable since we expect to feel and experience that family stress.
Coping with family stress comes with the season. Sure, family stress happens all year. Still, during the holiday season, it amps up, becoming stronger and more widespread amongst families. Family stress is defined as a disturbance in the steady-state of the family system. The disturbance can emerge from the outside, from inside the family, or both simultaneously.
Why does this happen? Why during a time of the year when we try to be cheerful and happy are families more stressed?
I feel that the answer to that question is two-fold. The holiday season itself can cause stress. Families need to make preparations for travel, the arrival of other family members, meal prep, getting gifts, decorating, and meeting the expectations of traditions. There’s a lot of responsibility placed on many people during a short couple of months. But we all know how the family will talk for years to come if just one aspect of the holidays doesn’t go as they wanted or expected. That’s a lot of pressure to place on people.
The other part of the answer to the question is that families who may spend much of the year physically separated are now coming back together. Children out on their own for the first time, feeling that sense of freedom, are now back in their parent’s house, struggling with being an adult while once again being treated like a child. Or family members who get along well through phone or video chats, find that living under the same roof, even temporarily, is a reminder of why they moved away.
Put these two reasons together, not unlike distant family members coming together, and we have the answer as to why coping with family stress is such an issue this time of the year. Tensions are high to achieve perfection, and family members are moving back, the perfect storm in which to brew stress.
So what can we do about this? Do we resign ourselves to an uncomfortable holiday as we assume stress to be inevitable? Not at all. Actually, the “answer” starts with the formulation of the question itself.
If you know there will be family stress during the holiday, base your expectations as such. If you know that one uncle will be drunk once again, or that cousins whom you can’t stand will be at a function, base your expectations as such. If that uncle gets drunk every year, don’t act surprised when he does it yet again. Why would you expect him to act any differently? Enter the holiday season with realistic expectations as to how people will act and plan accordingly. Therefore no surprises or hurt feelings. Actually, if for some reason they act in a healthy way, such as not getting drunk, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Keep your expectations realistic. No family is or will ever be perfect.
I write and often speak on this topic of feelings and how no one makes us feel any such way. Our nature tends to seek blame for when we don’t like how we are feeling. If I’m feeling happy or joyous, I’ll own that feeling! I’ll tell everyone how “I” feel. But, if I’m angry or sad or disappointed, I need to find the person or situation for which I can blame for those feelings. So if I’m disappointed in how the family gathering is progressing, I’ll be sure to vocalize how uncle so-and-so “made” me feel. Yet, in reality, no one makes us feel anything. People act, we react. But we have a choice in our reaction. If I kept my expectations based on reality, and uncle so-and-so is once again ruining the evening, I can choose to feel what I want since I already prepared myself for his actions. I don’t have to feel disappointed. And if I do feel frustrated, that’s my choice, just as it’s your uncle’s choice to do his actions.
When you’re creating your realistic expectations, remind yourself that it’s OK to feel how you feel. And it’s OK if not every family member agrees with the other members. A family’s bond is not in agreement with everyone, the relationship is in the love and the connections of the members. Yet, since each member of the family is an individual person as well, they may have different thoughts and opinions from others in the family. Remind yourself that it’s OK. Just as each family member has their own views, so too, you have your own opinions and feelings. You don’t have to convince others as to your opinion, nor do you have to justify your feelings. Be yourself, yet understand that as a member of the family, the family itself has importance. As you accept others in the family, accept yourself as a member too.