How to survive the holidays with extended family: the gathering

By Rita Buettner

Flickr Creative Commons / Suzi_Jane

Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays,

And no matter how far away you go,

If you want to be happy in a million ways,

It’s probably time for you to reset your expectations.

Because, let’s admit it, that image in your mind of what your family gathering will look like…it’s a Hallmark commercial. And those warm and fuzzy moments will last about as long as it takes you to flip the channel.

So, as we head into the holidays, here’s some advice from La Keita Carter, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist, and Danielle LaSure-Bryant, Ed.D., a licensed clinical professional counselor, both from the Loyola Clinical Centers.

Set realistic expectations for yourself and others.

“People tend to have a Pollyanna view of how the holidays should go, what we want our fantasy holidays to look like, and that doesn’t happen,” LaSure-Bryant says. “If you know that there’s tension between two members of the family, don’t ignore that. Instead, be realistic about your expectations and that will lead you to plan ahead.’”

Realize that the holidays can create stress.

“Expecting perfection at any family event is unrealistic—particularly around the holidays when there’s high-stress,” Carter says. “Somebody’s been cooking all day, and other people have been doing nothing all day.”

Communicate your plans in advance.

“If you know you’ll lose it when your sister gets drunk, plan to be out of there before that happens. Know yourself and know how much you can take, and set yourself up that way. Have some food and some very superficial conversation and dinner, and that’s it,” Carter says. “Tell your mother ahead of time, ‘We’ll be there for dinner, but we’ll be leaving after.’ Don’t push it until you’re sorry that you stayed or came at all.”

Set rules with your partner or family members in advance.

This might be as simple as “Don’t leave me alone with [insert contentious family member].”

Create a code word with your partner or immediate family for when you need to leave.

Be respectful, but have a way out. Then when you reach that moment say, “We’d better start on that Monopoly game we said we were going to play tonight,” and grab your coats.

Take control of as much of the experience as you can.

“You can’t control others, but you can control your expectations,” Carter says.

Be mindful of when you need a time-out.

“We can tell when kids need a time-out. But are we as aware of when we need a time-out?” LaSure-Bryant says. “It doesn’t necessarily need to be where you excuse yourself from everybody, although that’s good, too. It might be helpful to step outside and look at the leaves, for example. Recognize what are those triggers within you that signal when you need a time-out and recognize those triggers in your family, as well. Perhaps you notice that your 7-year-old is no longer wanting to share and getting a little uptight. You might call your 7-year-old and say, ‘Can you help me do such-and-such?’”

Keep in mind the purpose of family gatherings.

“The goal is to get family together. It doesn’t mean that everybody gets along and that everyone loves it. Every family has dysfunction because families are made up of people, and every person has quirks,” Carter says. “Honor the goal and know your limits.”

Also in this series:

Navigating conversation with your relatives

Are Family Gatherings Mandatory?

The College Student Edition

Grieving a Loss at the Holidays

Navigating family gift giving

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