Gatherings, Drama & Dysfunction: 7 Things to Think About Before Visiting Family This Holiday Season by Dr. Bethany Cook Clinical Psychologist
As we head into the holiday season, that carefree, happy, excited feeling just might not be there for you when you think about family gatherings. Whether you are keeping it small and celebrating with your spouse and kids or planning to attend larger family gatherings, things may be stressful.
Here are seven things to think about before committing and attending family events this holiday season:
1. Ask Yourself, “Is This Good or Bad for My Mental Health?”
Bottom line, if you know a visit to your family will knock you off your “center” the answer is you should not go. We are still living in a pandemic for goodness’ sake – some families won’t be able to see one another even if they wanted to. I don’t think going out of your way to visit people you know will significantly upset you is worth the added stress. The fallout from bad family visits can cause a splash big enough to ripple for weeks before and after the event. Some of the ripple’s effects may include:
- Increased self-harm, anxiety, depressed mood, anger, feelings of isolation and suicidal ideation.
- Increased levels of cortisol (stress hormone) which may cause muscle weakness, severe fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, high blood pressure and headache.
- Increase in digestive issues such as diarrhea and/or constipation.
- Disrupted sleep leading up to and after the gathering.
2. Ask Yourself, “Am I Able to Set a Boundary?”
Many of us are learning for the first time in our lives how to respectfully set boundaries in our relationships with others. Often it’s easier to set them with co-workers and acquaintances because we don’t usually have a past with them like we do with our family members. That being said, will you be able to ask your family to respect X? Will they be able to? If they don’t, will you even agree to go? What if they say “yes” and then once you arrive they don’t, what now?
3. Ask Yourself, “Will I Be Able to Enforce My Boundary?”
Setting a boundary is different from enforcing it. Think of it like legislators vs. police. One writes the laws and the other makes sure we obey them. Make sure you and your spouse are on the same page with who will enforce the boundary and how. This can include a tag-team effort. Just make sure going into the event that you are in agreement regarding who does what. Also, what happens if extended family cross the boundary?
4. Write Up a “Cost/Benefits” Analysis
Allowing and encouraging our children to have close relationships with extended family members has been the “norm” for generations. Families traditionally have done everything together and wouldn’t have survived without the help of each member. That being said, all types of abuse have also been happening in families since the dawn of time. The abuse can range from severe to mild, physical to emotional. It doesn’t matter the type, it’s not OK on any level.
If you are potentially putting yourself, spouse and/or your children into a toxic environment you need to look at who benefits and how much. Sometimes parents who abused their children are wonderful grandparents because they’ve changed and grown. While seeing them may trigger you, you know your children benefit from seeing and interacting with grandparents and your triggers are manageable. Mentally preparing yourself for the visit and having clear expectations allows you to remain in control and decreases feelings of anxiety.
5. Ask Extended Family to Agree Not to Bring Politics Up (Or Any Other “Hot Topic”)
I believe in setting people up for success. One of the ways to do that with holiday gatherings this year is to have everyone agree to not bring up certain topics. No, this doesn't make the gathering inauthentic. No, this doesn’t mean we are isolating Aunt Edna because she is the “only one who voted that way.” It means we are showing mutual respect for one another and all agreeing ahead of time to STFU about certain things.
6. Take Smelling Salts
When we feel threatened we stop using our frontal lobes (judgement, reason, understanding) and instead our thoughts stem from either our limbic system (the emotional center which results in over-the-top impulsive responses) or our cerebellum (survival mode which is flight/fright/freeze). One way to regain control of your thoughts and/or feelings in the moment is to ground yourself using one of your five senses.
- Wear a rubber band on your wrist and when you get irritated “snap” yourself out of it.
- Take some sour candy and/or black licorice with you and “startle” yourself back to the control center by shocking your taste buds.
- Lastly, if you do have smelling salts (or strong essential oils) bring them with you and take a whiff to calm down when you start feeling bothered.
7. Have an Exit Plan
Feeling in control will be the No. 1 “stress reliever” you’ve got, which means having a solid exit plan ready to implement if things go sideways. Both you and your spouse need to agree on the exit plan, maybe even have a code word and a prearranged excuse (if you don’t want to have to “get into it” at the moment) for when the plan gets implemented. Talk to your kids about it beforehand so they don’t feel sucker punched. You don’t have to get into the nitty gritty of “why” with them if you don’t want to just give them enough info so they know what to do. This will help you get out faster and with less confusion.
Getting along with family in the best of times can be stressful, but add the stress of a pandemic and a hotly divided political climate and you’ve got yourself a hot mess inside a dumpster fire. That being said, every sword has two sides and the counterpoint we’ve seen is families coming together and getting closer than ever before.
There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to how you manage the upcoming holiday season. My final words of advice are this: you aren’t responsible for making sure everyone in your extended family has a “happy holiday season.” Your first commitment should be to protect the mental health of yourself, spouse and children. It’s OK to hit the “pause” button in relationships. This doesn’t mean you’re a failure and it doesn’t mean you don’t care about the other person. It merely means you are strong and self-aware enough to not set yourself (partner and kids) up for failure.
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