Coping with Family Stress During the Holidays: 10 Rules for a Merry Season
My Holiday Family Nightmare
When I was younger, I hated the holiday season for one simple reason: my family. My parents were officially divorced when I was 8, putting typical stress on everyone during the holidays about where my younger brother and I would spend what dates. When my father later married a Jewish woman that my angsty teenage self wasn't fond of, questions rose about what holidays I would even celebrate, and why I should care about the holidays at all. Whether I was visiting my delightful grandmother and her husband whose many holiday rules I feared and hated, or spending the season with my immediate family, holidays meant stress for me for a long time. Nowadays though, I love the holidays, and fear my family no more. Follow these ten simple rules, and your holiday family stress will fade away like so many cups of eggnog.
This Holiday Season, Don't Be Afraid of Your Crazy Aunt
Rule 1: Don't Worry About The Holidays!
Don't go in to the season full of existential dread. No matter how crazy your family was last year, this year could be different. Have a little empathy and remember that the Holidays wear everyone thin. Maybe your uncle who drank too much and crashed his car in to the local nativity scene last year was really going through some things. Maybe your mother-in-law has had read an article like this and will treat you with some respect this year. Remember, it takes two to tango: if you enter the holidays with a positive attitude, you may find that things work out fine.
Rule 2: "The Platinum Rule"
We have all heard the "the golden rule," but this year take it a step further. Don't just treat others how you want them to treat you, treat others how they want to be treated. Maybe the holidays for you is just an excuse to overeat and take a week off of work, but if your sister is hosting the biggest family event of the year because she really believes the season has meaning, than respect her opinion and treat her like you care. If you treat others how they want to be treated, your attitude will be infectious, and you will find them more likely to respect your boundaries and treat you how you want to be treated too. Win-win!
Going out of your way to do something special can make the season meaningful. Arnold knows.
Rule 3: Do Something Good For Someone
If the holidays has morphed in to a jaded, stress filled romp for your family, you can change that. The thing about the holiday season is it is only about giving and love and all that jazz if YOU believe that is the case. If every year has felt more and more forced, do something good for your family this year. Whether that means bringing your dad's favorite bottle of scotch to dinner or calling your cousin who you have been avoiding since that terribly awkward fist fight in 2009, check your ego and doubt at the door for a minute and embrace the holiday season. You may inspire others to do the same!
Rule 4: Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
Even if you hate getting sappy, sentimentality can make the holidays work. Personally, I'd rather drink a cup of motor oil than look through a family photo album around chestnuts roasting on the open fire. But when I am with my family for the holidays and my grandma get the Polaroids out, I humor her. It makes her happy, and stops her husband from yelling at me. If like me you aren't a big "let's all be nostalgic once a year because Hallmark tells us to" kind of person, try pushing your self out of your comfort zone this year.
"Wizard of Oz" is My Family's Thing
Rule 5: Agree On A Meaningful, Unique Tradition
Not every family is going to roast a Christmas Ham. I have a good number of Jewish, Vegan friends that can attest to this fact. That doesn't mean the holiday season can't be about traditions anyhow. This year, think of a fun and unique tradition to start that fits your family perfectly. Every year, I watch "The Wizard of Oz" with my dad, as he watched it when he was a kid and it reminds him of his side of the family which we don't see much. And we love movies. Whatever it is that your family likes to do, think of a way to turn that in to a holiday tradition that you can all look forward to and call your own.
Rule 6: Know What You Should Talk About
Take an interest in your family members' lives, and come prepared to chat the night away. You aren't going to be an expert in everything your wife's Law Professor father teaches about, but it is polite to at least make an effort. If every male in your extended family loves baseball, it may be koscher to at least google who won the world series this year (GO GIANTS). Having good, genuine things to talk about will decimate holiday tensions.
Rule 7: Know What You Can't Talk About
The holiday's may not be the best time to convince your tea-parting brother-in-law that Obama rocks. The old adage forbidding talk about religion, politics, or money may be useful, but more likely there will be a different set of topics which are off limits to your family specifically. Just don't go there. My girlfriend's mom hate food stamps, so I am not likely to tell her stories of my family's long relationship with welfare while we eat mashed potatoes. Be tactful, and keep in mind your family member's trigger issues.
Your Grandfather's Face When You Mention That The Iraq War Was a Mistake...JUST DON't GO THERE
Rule 8: Make Time For Yourself
You are visiting your family: not grafted to them by the hip. While it is good to step out of your comfort zone, etc, don't feel like the holidays have to be all about appeasing sentimental relatives. If you are spending a week with your mom and she drives you crazy after a day or two, plan a couple afternoons where you will do your own thing completely. Find time for your usual de-stressing routines, whether that be reading or exercise. Yes, spend time with your family. But make sure that is quality time by spending time with yourself as well if you need to.
Rule 9: Get Out Of The House!
The holidays shouldn't feel like minimum security prison. If your family is starting to wear on each other, a change of environment can make all the difference. Gather up all your cousins and go bowling, or take your grand parents to see a family friendly movie (avoid things with Zach Galifianakis). Or go ice skating, for a walk or hike, to a museum, to a local theater production or concert: the possibilities are endless. The holiday season is often the time of the year when local culture is at it's fullest, so take advantage of things going on out in the real world, and get out of the house with your family.
Don't be this guy.
Rule 10: Don't Be a Grinch!
Just don't be that guy. Yes, holiday's can mean stress, and often your family doesn't help. But don't add to the problem by getting grumpy or going insane. Give the holiday spirit a chance to get up inside of you, and who knows, your heart may grow three sizes this year. At the very worst, being on your best behavior will mean that you can be sure that your family isn't telling stories about you and your meltdowns for the next year until they see you again. Have a good attitude about the holidays, and they may surprise you.
Overall, Keep an Open Mind
I mentioned that I used to hate the holidays. That is not the case anymore. Starting in October I start thinking about all the people I will get to see in November and December, about the fun I will have and the spirit of the season. Keep an open mind: this may be the year that the holiday's click for you, and you and your family find a rhythm that works for everyone, reduces stress, and makes this time of year joyous. If not, don't stress. Maybe the holidays just aren't for you. Either way, following the ten rules above will help you survive your family this holiday season.