Holiday Cheer or Horror? Managing Expectations, Making the Best of Family Festivities

Holiday Cheer or Horror? Managing Expectations, Making the Best of Family Festivities

A three-step plan for preserving good will and sanity during holiday gatherings

Enjoying a meal while treading lightly on contentious conversation at a holiday gathering.
Many Americans enjoy a family meal while treading lightly on contentious conversation during the holidays.

“We believe in the magic of the holidays and expect family members to behave differently this time. When they don’t, it brings up unhealed wounds and points of ongoing battle."
–  Michael LaSala
 

In the movie Four Christmases the lead characters both come from dysfunctional families, and the way they avoid Christmas is to go abroad on vacation and pretend to be doing charity work. They are running from the kinds of interactions that ruin many a holiday.

Just what makes holiday family gatherings so stressful?

“As adults who have worked hard at independence, we all have an expectation that we will be able to handle family relationships, and yet many people are often quite disappointed by the reality of a return home,” says Michael LaSala, associate professor at Rutgers School of Social Work, who has worked for many years as a licensed clinical social worker. 

A return home can often result in a regression to unwanted roles: the favored daughter, the scapegoated son, the peacemaker between warring parents. There are intrusive questions for singles about when they will marry and grandparents who spoil grandchildren, throwing out all the rules. Woe to anyone who starts a political discussion or touches some other family hot button.

“Studies have shown that people often go into therapy around the holidays, and I have seen an uptick in my own practice around this time of year. Holidays can also be a catalyst, lighting a fire under family dynamics that were already combustible. Add the adverse effects of alcohol and you have a recipe for an explosive conflict during this season,” says LaSala.

Part of the problem is the blast of “Norman Rockwell” images that sell the holidays as a time when families lovingly gather in peace and harmony. The reality, for most families, is not quite the same. This expectation of perfection then leads to disappointment with self and family when tensions arise around the dinner table.

“We believe in the magic of the holidays and expect family members to behave differently this time.  When they don’t, it brings up unhealed wounds and points of ongoing battle,” LaSala relates.

Family members sometimes use holidays as a time to make a big announcement, like a divorce or a revelation of a gay or lesbian sexual orientation. While holidays might be a time to announce some news, like an engagement or pregnancy, they are not the best time to open a family discussion about anything that is potentially controversial for one or more of its members. LaSala recommends waiting for a quieter, more private moment for these kinds of disclosures.

LaSala has come up with an “ABC Plan for Holiday Gatherings” that he hopes will guide individuals and families through the sometimes rocky terrain of a family table filled with turkey, sweet potatoes and plenty of recriminations.

  • A is for Acknowledgement (and Acceptance.) Try to prepare by acknowledging what the potential arguments or issues might be ahead of time so that you are prepared, at least somewhat. Will your sister-in-law criticize your child-rearing?  Probably. Then, bring acceptance to the table by remembering that things are not perfect, they don’t have to be, and you can’t control anyone’s behavior but your own. Find a softer way to respond and gently dismiss such comments with a response like, “Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I will give it some thought.” Also, know when to just “let go of the rope.” When all else fails, and grandma is still giving out candy before dinner, ignore it for now and follow up later with a talk with your children on the ride home about proper eating habits.
  • B is for Boundaries.  Do the best that you can to set limits with yourself and others during the holidays. Don’t take on more than you can handle. For example, if you would feel more comfortable staying in a nearby hotel rather than the family home, then assert that in a firm but calm way, not in an argument. When tensions arise and you are beginning to feel overwhelmed or out of control, separate yourself. Take a walk; get a breath of fresh air.   It can help significantly.
  • C is for Compassion. Try to have compassion for yourself and for your family. There is a Latin phrase, “Amor fati,” meaning, love your fate, which is relevant here. Find a way toward acceptance rather than judgment or perfectionism.  Try to cultivate compassion by remembering that some of the family issues you are now facing may have been going on for generations, and this may help you gain some perspective and diminish blame. This is the family you have been given, so try to find ways to understand and accept them while maintaining your own integrity.

Most of all, LaSala says, remember that at the end of the night you get to go home. “This will not last forever, so do your best to be compassionate to yourself and others for that brief period of time.”


For interviews, contact Beth Salamon, communications director, School of Social Work, at 848-932-5340 or bsalamon@ssw.rutgers.edu