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How to Survive Your Family During The Holidays    

How to Survive Your Family During The Holidays

Art by FISK

By Alyson Sheppard

Despite all the commercials we are inundated with during the holidays of happy families celebrating together, with requisite mugs of hot cocoa in hand, the reality for many often is much different. People frequently face a difficult decision on the holidays: Should they go home and visit family members, who may rekindle old conflicts, or stay where they are and keep their peace of mind?

Licensed professional counselor Lauren Ostrowski, MA, LPC, NCC, at Blue Creek Psychotherapy in Pottstown, PA, says the holidays are always hard. But this year has been especially trying on relationships, as people struggle with whether or not to return home in the face of a pandemic. For many who are homesick, not going to see family can be just as traumatizing as going. 

“Overall, the holiday season can be difficult for a lot of people because for some, it brings about positive memories and for others, it brings about pain and loss or often some combination thereof,” she says. “That’s how I look at it in a typical season. Now, this year, when we put Covid into the whole thing, it becomes much more complicated.”

For those who struggle with anxiety-inducing family dynamics over the holidays, here are some of the strategies that Ostrowski shares with her clients.

Come Prepared

If you are returning home, your goal is to remain safe and comfortable. Wear a mask if you’d like, even if you think you’re being judged. Stay open-minded. The people you’ll be seeing lead different lives than you do, and they may be different than you remember. 

“People who are not in touch a whole lot during the year are then in a room with one another for a holiday gathering,” Ostrowski says. “And they’re [expected to cover] a lot of information in a short amount of time with people who they are not especially emotionally connected with the rest of the year.”

If you know your boundaries and set them ahead of time, it will make it easier to remain true to yourself. It’s also helpful to communicate them ahead of time, so no one is surprised.

“If there are a few subjects that you really, really don’t want to discuss, you could set that up with your family members before you go, that there are a couple of topics that are simply not open for discussion,” she says. “And then if they come up, say, ‘Remember, we previously discussed this.’”

On the flip side, you could also come up with a list of “safe” topics you really want to discuss, topics that everyone can feel comfortable talking about, such as stories from your grandparents’ childhoods, recipes for your favorite dishes, or things you’re grateful for. 

Accept There Are Things Out Of Your Control

You can only control yourself—what you say and do and how you react to others. Sometimes you just have to accept the situation, stay civil, and remain calm.

“If someone is making a decision in their own lives that we don't agree with, we can sometimes voice our concerns, although we can't change what that person does,” Ostrowski says. 

Also remember that there are two sides to every conversation, what someone is trying to say and what the other person hears. 

“When you make space for being able to feel what the other person says, you can have two different opinions or realities of the same situation, and both of you can be right,” she says. “Along those lines, listening to someone does not mean you agree with them. It means you hear what they are saying.”

Know Your Escape Route

During the holidays, a seemingly innocuous conversation can take a hard turn quickly. Your goal should be to notice when an argument is bubbling up and make a change before it explodes. 

Ostrowski recommends saying, “This conversation is making me a bit uncomfortable,” and then explaining the reason why. Doing so can make it easier to shift into another direction. “Then you have control over it before it becomes something much bigger when more emotions are involved.”

If it does explode, keep your voice steady, say you need a moment to yourself, and walk away from the conversation. Sit alone somewhere until you have calmed down and gained some perspective. Ostrowski recommends starting with a 30-minute mental or physical break.

“When we get very upset, there are some things that happen in our brain that are designed to protect us. The fight or flight response,” she says. “It takes about 20 minutes for those chemicals in the brain to return to their normal level.”

After that time passes, you may be better equipped to either continue the conversation—whether it’s the same one or something different—from a more mindful and centered place where the emotions aren’t turned up too high.

Leave If You Need To

Leaving is still an option. If you don’t think you’re able to return to the situation after half an hour, you can leave and tell the other guests you’ll address it later. Arrange your own transportation away from the gathering. Call a trusted friend to “debrief.”

“You can leave and say something like, ‘I am upset at the moment, and I will contact you [later],’” Ostrowski says. “If you walk out without saying anything, the people left at the gathering may create all kinds of ideas in their mind as to what you were experiencing at the time that are not true. We often create stories in our mind that we later find out are not true.”

Be Better Prepared For Next Year

The time for practicing coping mechanisms isn’t limited to the holidays. You can work on them year-round, which can better prepare you for any gathering, including next year’s holiday celebrations. One anxiety-busting method is meditation.

“Meditation is something that a lot of people will say, ‘Well, I can’t do that,’” Ostrowski says. “The reality of it is, meditation is just focusing on one thing, whether it is a word or a thought and just being able to bring your attention back to that word or breathing or focus.”

Another useful tool is mindfulness, which in its simplest form refers to experiencing the world through the use of your senses, what you see, hear, smell, touch, or taste.

“You can be mindful in any moment of any day,” she says. “You could be on the phone with someone and you become upset, but then you notice that you can smell the baking dessert in the kitchen and your mind drifts that way, and you feel a little bit more comfortable.”

You can also practice being grounded. Notice where you’re situated in a room, how your feet are touching the floor and how your hips are resting in a chair. 

“When you bring your focus back to your body, it tends to create more of a sense of calm in your mind as well as lesson anxiety,” she said.

Whatever happens, try to remember that you can always try again next year.

For more tips for managing the holidays with your family, check out Psych Central’s Holiday Guide.

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.