The holidays often bring the assumption and expectation that you will be spending time with your family. However, for many, time with family members can feel emotional, complicated, or even unpleasant. You may find it’s more preferable to not spend time with family, or certain family members. That takes courage to honor what you need. We hope these tips will support you in creating a family experience that is as easy and tolerable as possible.
1. Realistically Prepare. Sometimes the leadup to a family situation is more anxiety-ridden than the actual interactions themselves. While it can be helpful to plan ahead for potential conversations, it’s important to recognize you can only prepare so much. Instead of focusing on the worst case scenario, perhaps even consider the best case scenario. Usually, what actually happens is somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. You may already be able to predict some of your family member’s comments or behaviors. Each time you notice something happening in the moment that aligns with your prediction, you get a check mark. Identify prizes for yourself in advance if you reach a certain number of check marks. Another option may be to plan an activity that will keep you engaged, such as a board game or watching a holiday movie together.
2. Remember your value. Difficult family dynamics can have the ability to make us forget our own worth. Remember you provide something valuable to every relationship and you are deserving of the love and respect that you desire. Walk into the interactions with the knowledge that you will not walk away any less valuable than when you walked in.
3. Set boundaries. Setting boundaries is a form of love. It lets the person know you have a need that you are trying to get met. This helps set the relationship and interaction up for more success. A boundary also shows others that you still value maintaining a relationship with them, and as such are choosing to set healthy boundaries that will allow the relationship to continue to be as positive as possible. Setting boundaries might include: not discussing certain topics together, in advance deciding to find your own accommodations, or having an exit strategy during the interaction if you need a break.
4. Pick your battles. When having a difficult conversation with a family member, take a moment to consider… is this worth it to you? If it is, find a way to communicate your perspective and the need underlying what you are expressing. Also, genuinely try to listen and hear what they need or belief they are trying to express. Often we get hyper focused on our rebuttal in the conversation that we stop listening to the other person. You can use active listening like summarizing and reflecting what they are saying, without agreeing with their content. This will usually help them deescalate and feel more heard. Consequently, they’ll be more likely to try to listen to your perspective after. If you realize that it doesn’t feel productive to have this conversation, it’s okay to respectfully let them know that for the health of the relationship you want to change the topic or take a break from conversation with them. Choosing not to “battle” isn’t you backing down or saying you don’t care. It’s you choosing your own inner peace and reducing the chance of a relationship rupture that may take a long time to repair in the future. Also, remember what my yoga teacher always says: Be kind to yourself because you matter. Be kind to others because they matter.
5. Decompress. Wooohooooooo! You made it through the gathering! Build in time to process how things went and how you’re feeling. Identify what lessons you learned and what you want to replicate (or not) in the future. Schedule in a fun activity afterwards, so that you do not get stuck lingering in the processing stage for too long at one time. Also, you may find yourself feeling more emotionally and physically fatigued after the interaction. Be intentional about your recovery time. Schedule in fewer activities, or things that create a sense of calm and rejuvenation.
Written by Mattie Bogoslavsky, MS and Jennifer Martin, PhD