Each year around this time, conversations with clients turn to the predictable stress of time with family over the holidays. Like ghosts in the night, old issues, long dormant, reappear at holiday time. How is it that an adult with partner and children can walk into their parents' home and instantly feel 10 years old again? The anticipation of a holiday encounter can lead any adult to feel slightly unhinged in a way that few other situations do.

Let's face it, no one can upset you like a family member.

Here are some ideas to try on this holiday season. They are born of basic tenets of family therapy theory and are utterly applicable to a variety of anticipated holiday situations:

1. Plan and be strategic. 

It's always a good idea to warn someone that you are going to make a change before you actually do:

"I was thinking about the holiday, and this year I might do something a bit different."

You don't even have to be sure of what specific change you're going to make, the point is to warn others first. That way, you can attempt to avoid their shock and surprise when you decide not to follow the family script - you know, ‘the way it's always been and everyone (but you) wants to continue'.

This can be particularly useful when, for example, you have young children and want to begin to create your own traditions around the holidays. Perhaps you feel the stress of traveling with small children in an effort to please everyone, or because 'you've done it every year, and they're counting on you.' So let people know in advance and find allies to support your change.

Which brings me to the next point.

2. Expect a reaction.

It is true that relationships have much in common with physics: for every action there is a reaction. Families attempt to maintain a homeostasis - a state of balance, maintained by familiar patterns and expectations. Think of the tremendous impact it has upon relationships when a family member joins or leaves the system; these points of normative developmental crises, birth, adolescence, marriage, or death, each require a renegotiation of previous roles and rules in the family system. Holiday traditions are valued as markers of continuity, so changes, however minor, can feel disruptive and unsettling. 

3. Focus on yourself.  

You can change only your behavior, not the behavior of others.

Admittedly, this is a tough one. It's the balancing act between giving up the dream of what can be, and accepting what is. There is much integrity in changing one's own behaviors in a respectful and compassionate way, and it's sad to realize that, for now, others may just not be who you want them to be.

Developing a curiosity about yourself may help. This might be a good time to entertain the questions:  Why does this person still hold so much power over me?  Why do I still need my mother/father/sibling to compliment or recognize me? How is it that I have come to this place in my life carrying that old wound?

4. There's always next year.

Your opportunities to practice being different in your family are boundless. Try to think of this as one of many steps toward change. It will most likely take more than one conversation and there can be complicating factors: addiction, trauma, divorce, remarriage. Relationships take time, so keep in mind the long term; families are full of surprises and unpredictability as the family life cycle inevitably moves into the future.

When I hear a person in their 20's or 30's say "I'll never have a relationship with my brother, I respond, "Well, let's think about this for a moment. If you both live until you're 80, are you telling me nothing will happen over the next 50 years? Most likely, your parents will predecease you, and you and he will together become the oldest living generation in the family. You may each partner with someone, and perhaps become aunt and uncle to each other's children." There are endless circumstances that create opportunities for us to evolve in our family system.

5. Lastly, I try to remember at this time of giving thanks, that to even think about the quality of relationship is of itself a both blessing and a privilege.

About the Author

Jacqueline Hudak, M.Ed., Ph.D., LMFT

Jacqueline Hudak, M.Ed., Ph.D., LMFT, teaches in the couple and family therapy at Drexel University.

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