Every year, I remind you to think ahead about how you will handle difficult family issues during the holidays. Why? Because this is one time of year we want to build positive memories. We intentionally get together despite our conflicts and upsets with each other. So we do our best we can to make this time of year a celebration rather than a burden.

But for some, the flooding of unhappy memories begins the moment they pull up the driveway or begin to plan the get together. Unhappy memories of a drunk parent, an abusive relative, a depressed mom or a critical uncle can prompt anxiety and be painful reminders of a not so Merry Christmas.

Add to this the fact that you may be dealing with loss and changes from a difficult year. If you were divorced, this is the first time splitting the holiday with your children. If your mom died, this is the first time she will not be preparing the meal and sitting at your table. If your children are away at college, you may be struggling to find your new purpose. The holidays can be a reminder of losses experienced throughout the year and make this time difficult for you.

Stress is heightened. You may be physically more depleted due to all the busyness and preparations so you find yourself more irritable and less tolerant. You’d rather not deal with difficult people, but they are family. So think now about how you will approach this time of year.

What can you do differently this year to make the holidays more enjoyable? If there are family things you don’t want to do because they are too stressful, consider not doing them. Family members may initially become upset, but they will get over it. For example, if you are expected to cook the turkey and you can’t see how you will do that this year, ask to have another task this year. If you don’t want to visit for 5 days, tell your family you will come for 3 days instead.

Think about what you can change that would lessen the stress and bring more peace to the time together. Sometimes, it is a matter of not saying YES to everything you are expected to do. Sometimes it is about having boundaries and sticking to them. Sometimes it helpful to anticipate the problem (most likely it is the same thing from year to year unless people have been working on it) and have a planned strategy ahead of time that helps you deal with the issue.

For example, if you know Uncle Bob will get drunk and be terrible to you, tell the family that if his drinking gets out of control and Uncle Bob starts on his rampage, you and your family will be leaving the gathering. Perhaps someone should monitor Uncle Bob better so he doesn’t ruin the party. Why should the family be hostage to this repeated behavior every year? Conversations prior to the gathering might help. And yes, these are difficult conversations, but you might as well talk about what everyone feels and doesn’t say in order to see if you can get a plan to deal with Uncle Bob this year.

Families can be challenging this time of year, but they are family. I would encourage you to accept them, flaws and all and do your best to give grace and forgiveness where and when you can. Keep trying to improve those gatherings by responding differently to predicable problems. And pay attention to your mood given what you may have gone through this year. Perhaps you need to feel more cheerful and optimistic despite all the problems. Focus on the good, the blessings and gifts that have been given to you. Focus on the true meaning of this season to center yourself and give you peace.

Families and the holidays

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