December 2, 2021

Navigating Family Dynamics During the Holidays

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Some families are chaotic, fun and full of laughter, while others are stoic and boring. Some families are messy, angry and hard to communicate with, and still other families are a mix of all three. Regardless of your family type, the holiday season tends to create more complications and tensions than usual. And yet for a million different reasons, we’re always caught off guard when the holidays roll around.

But here’s the deal: The holidays don’t just sneak up on us out of nowhere. They happen at the same time every year. So here are a few things we can do in advance to make sure our time with family is filled with less stress, less conflict and less awkwardness — and more laughter joy, and connection.

Here are my top five tips for navigating family dynamics this holiday season:

1. Define the WHY
Before you book your flight to grandma’s, take some time to think about why you’re going. What is the true purpose of this trip? Is it to help your kids get to know the relatives they haven’t met yet? Are you going because of a sense of obligation and duty? Do you love being with your family? Clarify why you are going.
Holiday angst often comes from either a fantasy picture of a perfect family gathering or simply a bad attitude. Both are unhelpful. Do a reality check before you go, be honest about the potential highs and lows, and when things get complicated, always go back to your why.

2. Set clear boundaries
Clear holiday boundaries are important, even for the most connected and loving families. Remember that YOU get to decide where you will or will not travel, who’ll you invite into your home, how much money you’ll spend, and how much time you’ll devote to extended family this year. Decide ahead of time if there are any off-limits conversation topics, and hold each other accountable. Off-limit topics might include politics, vaccines, religion, whose casserole is better, or all the above. Also, decide a dollar amount for gift spending — and stick to it!
Choose to set your boundaries now, before things get chaotic and busy, or you find yourself neck-deep in a political debate with Uncle Steve during the Secret Santa exchange. Remember to hold firm to your established boundaries and speak up or walk away when someone violates them.

3. Remember, you can’t control everything
There only two things in the world you can control: your thoughts and your actions. That’s it. You can’t control the way your older brother still makes fun of you for something you did when you were 12. You can’t control your aunt’s passive aggressive comments. But you can control your attitude, your kindness, your integrity, and your boundaries. When you choose to let go of what you can’t control and take ownership of what you can, you’ll immediately reduce holiday-related stress.

4. Focus on others
After you establish your personal boundaries, remember the holidays aren’t all about you. If you agree to travel and visit someone’s home, especially if you’re going to your spouse’s or significant other’s family celebration, remember that you are a guest. Simply put — get over yourself. If you have to sleep on the uncomfortable couch at your girlfriend’s parents’ house and eat their weird vegan food, remember that you’re not the star of the show. It’s not your home and not your event. Once you commit to an event or activity, do it with a good attitude.
And if you’re the one inviting your significant other to the family event, remember that your guest is sacrificing their usual comforts and traditions. Be hospitable. Ask them what they like to do or eat during the holidays, ask about food allergies or other needs, and honor the fact that they’re missing their own family time.

5. Prioritize connection
The holidays should be full of hugs, smiles and long conversations at the dinner table. They should be about telling the same stories over and over again, holding hands, watching old movies and serving one another. But this type of gathering doesn’t happen without prioritizing relationships and genuine connection. Be intentional and look for joy and hope. Don’t focus on division and disconnection.

And while you’re at it, remember this time of year is challenging and lonely for a lot of folks. Don’t be shy about inviting others to spend the holidays with you too, even if you don’t know them well. The more laughter and joy around a table, the better.

If the thought of endless small talk about weather and sports during your next family gathering makes you feel like you’re going to break out in hives, check out this article about how to have fun and meaningful conversations.

I’m wishing you a holiday season that’s full of connection, laughing until your stomach hurts and way too many carbs!

* Dr. John Delony is a mental health expert with PhDs in Counselor Education & Supervision and Higher Education Administration from Texas Tech University. Prior to joining Ramsey Solutions in 2020, John worked as a senior leader, professor, and researcher at multiple universities. He also spent two decades in crisis response, walking with people through severe trauma. Now as a Ramsey Personality, he teaches on relationships and emotional wellness. Follow John on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube or online at www.johndelony.com

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