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Managing Family Dynamics During the Holidays

In our idealized version of the holidays, family is a warm, safe place where the joy of the season can be felt the strongest. In reality, family time can often mean stress, anxiety and conflict. In fact, a recent survey showed that 88% of Americans find the holidays to be the most stressful time of the year, with family issues cited as one of the top three reasons why.*

Why is it that holidays can bring out the worst in families — and what can we do about it? Understanding family dynamics — the long-developed patterns and processes that characterize how we interact with each other — can help us sort through the confusion.

These roles typically fall into these general categories:

  • Peacekeeper: Attempts to keep the peace between everyone
  • Scapegoat: The “problem child” or the “difficult one”
  • Caretaker: Tries to avoid chaos as much as possible; often an enabler
  • Mascot: Uses humor, achievements, talents or personality to ease the stress and divert attention away from difficulties
  • Hero: Overachieves to offset chaos and create a sense of normalcy
  • Lost Child: Keeps quiet and sticks to themselves

As children, we don’t realize what is healthy versus what is unhealthy. We manage, but along the way we are absorbing family dynamics. As adults, we tend to fall back into our roles when we get around our family of origin. We may expect issues and go into the holidays with our armor on and ready for a confrontation. As we try to avoid a debacle, we will slip back into that familiar role.

Tips to help control the stress:

  • Be proactive, expect the best and plan ahead: You cannot change others, but you can control your own behavior. Choose to be more positive and distinguish real danger from perceived danger. Take a deep breath and remember, just because other people are falling back into familiar behaviors doesn’t mean you have to.
  • Delegate and keep it super simple (KISS): Trying to do everything will lead to fatigue and irritation. Remember, you are not Martha Stewart, and no one is expecting you to be.
  • Don’t overindulge: Go slow on alcohol, food, even gossip. It can lead to unfiltered debates and hurtful words.
  • Set boundaries and practice self-care: Go for a walk, help in the kitchen, talk to someone else, phone or text a friend, read positive affirmation, practice deep breathing, drink a glass of water, go outside, take a break, step away and look in and make a good choice, then congratulate yourself.
  • Distinguish between real and perceived danger. You don’t need a cortisol induced fight or flight response because your sister said something snarky.

What if conflict does happen?

  • Remember that conflict is just a case of different perspectives and not something that is inherently bad.
  • See conflict as an opportunity to learn about another person’s point of view.
  • Manage conflict by being curious without challenging their beliefs, if you choose to engage. Give the other person your undivided attention, and eliminate defensive bantering by allowing them to explain their perspective without correcting or countering.
  • Listen for the emotion and try to empathize even if you don’t agree. Reflect that emotion back to them to show that you heard them. (e.g., “It sounds like you’re angry with me because I wasn’t very attentive to you last time we were together.”)
  • Ask questions: this sends the message that you are concerned and that you want to resolve the conflict. (e.g., “How would you have liked for me to have interacted with you that day? What could I have done differently?”)
  • Be willing to accept your part in the conflict: take responsibility and admit your error, if there is one.

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*“Festive stress is a reality,” poll conducted by PollOne and Joy Organics, 2018.