By Jeanne Sager
If you’re looking to your family’s holiday get-together with more than a little bit of anxiety, consider yourself in good company. Holidays are the most stressful times of the year for many of us, and the fear that time spent with family will devolve into nitpicking and arguments plays a major role.
Is it any wonder some 61 percent of Americans who gather round the family dinner table for a holiday meal prefer to sneak out afterward and spend the night at a hotel?
Whether you’ve got family coming in for a visit or you’re headed out of town to see your folks, here are some tips to make things go just a little bit smoother than holidays past.
Image ©iStock.com/Jay Spooner
Set Your Ground Rules
There are some topics that tend to bring out the worst in certain family members, especially when there are opposing viewpoints. Don’t wait for the topics to come up and the situation to devolve. Tina Tessina, PhD., a licensed psychotherapist and author of Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Difference, suggests laying out what topics are off limits from the get-go, but also preparing for some people not to follow through. “Come up with some topics in advance you can divert the conversation to if things go off track,” she suggests. “Enlist the help of another family member who is reliable to change the topic whenever it goes off course.”
Keep it Quiet
It can be hard to stay silent when you vehemently disagree with Uncle Tommy or Aunt Joanie. But Dr. Dion Metzger, a board certified psychiatrist from Dunwoody, Georgia, suggests her patients do exactly that whenever possible.
“If you know you won't agree, why step into the ring?” Metzger notes. “To keep the holidays peaceful, avoid debates at all costs!”
Plan Your Escape
This may not be an option if you’re this year’s holiday host, but if you’re the visitor, make sure you’ve got an out when things are going south. That can be as simple as somewhere to disappear to mid-dinner, says Mudita Rastogi, Ph.D., the coordinator of the Child and Family Concentration at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University, Schaumburg.
“Create a plan on how to manage each phase of the day/evening,” Rastogi says. “You can excuse yourself and go for a walk or to a store to take a quick break from a difficult situation.”
She also suggests bringing along a “support person” such as a friend who can provide a little boost and who can step in to help you “escape” when the time is right.
Sometimes we walk into holiday gatherings so afraid of conflict that we put up a wall, but Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, advises giving vulnerability a try.
“I am not suggesting that you vent or use your relatives as a receptacle or trash can,” she says. “Don't dump; be human. All of us struggle at times. When you share and expose your vulnerability the other person feels safe to do the same with you.”
Ask for Help
The most common complaint Tessina hears from patients is that they were stuck doing all the work, be it cooking, cleaning, or decorating. Remember that you don’t have to shoulder it all alone. “Group efforts, if well organized, can magnify the ease and joy of a celebration,” Tessina says,
Besides, you may be surprised by how they respond. “Arranging everything on your own can be exhausting for you, and leave everyone else feeling excluded,” Tessina notes. Your relatives or friends might love to bring a special side dish or dessert to the holiday meal, and some of them may be enthusiastic dish washers, too! Don’t feel bad about asking for help.
Image ©iStock.com/Guenter Guni
Help for Helpful Guests
Friends and family won't mind doing dishes when you have grease-fighting Dawn dish soap on hand to help tackle the pile of the plates, pots, and pans.
Don’t Be Afraid to Speak Up
Being vocal isn’t just about asking for help. It can also mean letting people know they’re crossing a line.
“We're all human and nobody likes to be picked on,” Metzger says. “If the quarters are too tight at dinner and you start hearing the insults coming, nip it in the bud immediately, look them straight in the eye and ask, ‘Can you not insult me today?’”
If that doesn’t work, remind everyone it’s a holiday, and holidays are supposed to be pleasant – not full of criticism.
Image ©iStock.com/Steve Debenport
Back in the ‘70s, Harvard researchers surmised that meditation, with focused deep breathing, could actually alter the way the body responds to stress. And it’s exactly what Dr. Rastogi suggests doing when Aunt Edna starts nitpicking. Even in the midst of an argument, she says deep breathing and letting your mind calm down can help diffuse a situation.
Give Yourself a Break
You may want everything to go perfectly, but Tessina reminds people that perfect holidays only exist in picture books. Things go wrong, and that’s okay! Having a sense of humor can go a long way … and keep you out of arguments.
“To make it easier, you can think of yourself as a holiday troubleshooter, rather than a designer of perfect scenarios,” Tessina suggests. “Focus less on spending money, preparing food, or decorating, and more on spending time with those you love.”
What are your best tips for coping with family stress during the holidays?
Jeanne Sager is a freelance writer, photographer and social media junkie. She lives in upstate New York with her husband, daughter, and way too many pets. You can follow her