Four Ways to Survive Holiday Family Stress

Don't worry family, nothing that follows applies to me...wink. 

If you're like me, then your family has perfect boundaries, you never have to worry about awkward eggnog conversations, you have no weird holiday traditions like passing around sugar bowls that look like cherubs peeing into a fountain, and frustrating family dynamics never repeat themselves.  

However, for those of you who don't have the blessing of the perfect family....ahem, here are a few a tricks of the trade to help you survive the holidays. 

1. Casually Observe

You know that same argument you have every year? The one where aunt so-and-so says something political, which gets uncle such-and-such all fired up? Its the same one where cousin what's-his-name ends up swimming in a bowl of egg nog to drown out the sounds of predictable family drama. Before you know it, everyone's around the table while the family placater attempts to patch up hurt feelings so that you can do it all again next year.

Here's an idea: what if rather than get involved in family drama, you adopted a curious posture and observed your family at a distance? The content may pull you in; be careful that it doesn't. Even though your brother may say something insulting, avoid the temptation to get caught in the mix and watch to see how others respond to the comment. What alliances develop? How do those alliances impact other people in the family? Who bails first? Who tries to get everyone to calm down? Remove yourself from the fray and participate in the family dynamics as a casual observer.

2. Do the Opposite

What would you normally do? Are you the first to arrive? To leave? Do you start arguments or end them? Do you tend to quietly slip away when things get tense? If you really want to be proactive, change your normal tune and behave differently than how you might normally. Stay engaged when you would check out. Be slower to speak when you would talk first. Take sides with someone else. By injecting change into typical family interactions, you may confuse things just enough to change the typical patterns that send you running for the hills.

3. One-to-One

One of the hardest things to do in families is avoid triangles. A triangle happens when communication flows from one person through another person before it gets to you. An example of this is when your sister tells you that mom is mad at you again. If you could step away from that discussion as a casual observer and go directly to your mom to understand, you might discover that she is not actually angry at you, but that your sister misinterpreted her. When our anxiety goes up, we tend to pull in other people to lower it.  

Avoid getting caught up in this kind of anxiety by having direct, one-to-one dialogues with everyone in your family, especially when there's conflict. Lead the conversation by asking as many open ended questions as possible. Develop healthy individual relationships to sustain direct communication and avoid unhealthy triangles.

4. Be together

If you are married or in an intimate relationship, you may tend to notice that conflict goes up when the holidays come around. We tend to revert back to the roles we're familiar with depending on our family environment. My wife, for example, is most herself when she's curled up around a book at our house. Her typical endearing stubbornness transforms, however, into something more deferential when we're with her parents.

With my family, however, she is faultless and charming, and this is exactly how it should be. We've had more than a decade to practice getting this right. But I had to learn early on that my loud and obnoxious family demeanor suited my big brother role and fulfilled my obligations as the family clown, but it did not always suit my marriage. 

Make your primary relationship first wherever you go. Check in with each other when you're at each other's respective families. Make sure you are acting as a spouse or intimate partner first to reduce the potential for conflict. 

Dr. Mathis Kennington