The holiday season is here, and while this can be a wonderful and joyous time it can also come with plenty of stress. If you’re lucky enough that your entire family is full of nothing but warmth and kindness (or at least courtesy), then you may not even need to read this blog- congratulations! However, many people who enjoy a larger extended family find there may be one person in the mix who maybe is “more difficult”. Even if you really love the person (in fact, sometimes especially if you really love the person, even minor conflicts can seem stressful. For many people, family dynamics can contribute to anxiety about holiday gatherings… but the beauty of this type of stress is that it can be planned for. Family pattern stressors are, by nature, predictable stressors allow us to fill our tool belts with the necessary items for managing holiday interactions before any difficulties are met.
This means that if your mother is always critical of your single status, at least you know the topic will likely be brought up over the holidays. Planning in advance how you will respond to this topic (or whatever your particular “holiday relative situation” may be) can help to manage conflict so that you’re neither super-afraid of it nor actively seeking it; you’re merely prepared to deal with it.
Understand what is behind the criticism
The truth is, much of the criticism that can add to holiday stress is simply an expression of care, and is not meant as destructive. While it may be annoying to hear your mother continuously ask if you’ve gone on any dates, it is important to remember that she is only doing this because she cares.
On the other hand, be able to tell when and if criticism moves towards the abusive. If your mother uses expletives and says you’ll never find a man because you are too ugly or too fat, you likely won’t get the response you seek no matter how you respond.
The good thing is, you can prepare for all of this! Thinking about potential criticisms on a spectrum from annoying to abusive can help you tailor your responses to productively handle the situation while still protecting yourself.
Measure your planned responses accordingly
While you can prepare for many of the stressful interactions you incur over the holidays, it is always best to think about your responses depending on how the criticism ranks on a scale from annoying to abusive.
Remember, the goal for the holiday season is for everyone to have a nice time together, so ensuring that you prepare your responses in advance can help make sure that you don’t escalate conflict by over responding to inferred slights.
Step 1: Ask nicely
Keep in mind that most criticism comes from a place of care, so you can help family members improve their own interpersonal skills by productively discussing how criticism affects you. For example, when your mother asks why you are still single, you can respond softly by acknowledging that you know she is coming from a good place and because she is doing that you feel you can be open by letting her know you want to spend time with her without that topic coming up.
Your first line of defense should always be to calmly let the other person know that you would prefer to keep the focus of the holidays on the fun stuff. A great idea is to plan topics in advance that you can use to redirect any conversations that may be headed towards conflict. For example, if you know your father is going to ask you about your job, acknowledge that he is coming from a place where he wants to know you are taken care of, and then try and suggest alternate topics like travel, health, or entertainment.
Step 2: Remind with compassion
However, if you keep noticing a pattern of the conversation coming back up throughout the time you spend together, you’ll need to proceed to the second step of the barometer, where you nicely remind the family member about your request. Remember, your family member is learning to break a habit of how they interact with you, so the more compassion and support you can provide at this time, the better. If you can give these gentle reminders in a light hearted and friendly way, you’ll be more likely to receive a positive response back.
If you can present alternative ways to connect then you will have a better chance of turning conversations back to the productive. For example, if an uncle makes political comments that offend you (and you don’t feel like diving in for a conversation about how your views differ, which could even potentially be fun and interesting if everyone can at least remain respectful) then you may want to redirect him in a way that doesn’t escalate tension; such as asking him about something in his life that interests you. This gives a helpful alternative that makes room to focus on togetherness if possible. Given the time-limited nature of holiday get-togethers, this is sometimes a good approach that is adaptable to other common “offenses” people sometimes encounter at family holiday gatherings.
Step 3: Remove yourself
If you have calmly gone through the first steps of the barometer and still find the topic keeps coming up, it may be time to remove yourself temporarily from the room to allow everyone to relax. You may want to say something like, “I’ve tried to be clear on my wishes about keeping this topic out of the holidays, so I’m going to have to remove myself from the room.” You can firmly but politely let family members know that you will be more than happy to resume spending time with them so long as they agree to stop bringing up the topic.
This is also a great opportunity to take care of yourself so that you remain calm. Take a walk or drink some hot cocoa, and if you can, call a friend to help vent some of your frustration. Again, since family interactions are predictable stressors, it might be a good idea to plan with a friend in advance where you can call him or her if needed.
Step 4: Give yourself permission to avoid the situation
If you have tried all of the above steps and are finding that conversations are becoming more conflict-ridden or abusive, it is time to give yourself permission to avoid the situation entirely. Of course, you want to be sure that you are not confusing annoyance for abuse, and you’ll also want to be sure that you’ve given family members adequate time to handle your requests.
Tips to remember during the holidays:
- Try rescheduling conversations with topics you may not want to talk about for after the holidays instead of just rejecting them.
“Dad, I appreciate that you want to know if I am financially sound, but how about we plan a visit after the holidays to discuss my finances.”
- Recognize that different people have different ways of connecting, and don’t always make the conversation about what you want to talk about. You don’t want others to feel that they have to audition a list of topics to talk to you.
“Mom, thanks for the concern about my well-being, but right now I’d like to hear about what is going on in your life.”
- Avoid criticizing topics that are brought up without providing an alternative in a loving and compassionate way.
“Hey dad, instead, I’d like to tell you about the concert I just went to since we are both such fans of jazz.”
About those in-laws…
A word of advice to established couples and for those who may be meeting each other’s families for the first time: if you have a difficult in-law or someone that you seem to keep clashing with, your significant other knows about this dynamic. Recognize that saying something critical like “Your mom is being such a bitch!” will only make your significant other feel as though you are attacking the family member, and may cause further stress between the two of you.
Again, this is a predictable stressor for you and your partner, so planning a course of action through productive communication can help improve these relationships. For example, if a mother-in-law constantly brings up the subject of grandchildren, calmly tell your partner that you know his mother means well, but that you are feeling a lot of pressure from these statements. Help give your partners the right tools by offering solutions for productive responses. For example, on the first step of the barometer this may include your partner telling his mother in a loving way that you are taking your time on the decision and that you both prefer to enjoy the family the way it is now.
Remember, the holidays are meant to be a joyous time for family and friends, so make sure you avoid as much stress as possible by preparing for any possible conflict in advance.
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Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, dating coach, and the founder of Carmichael Psychology in New York City. She specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety reduction in every aspect of your life. Her new series of online tools allows her clients to master CBT techniques for anxiety on their own schedule.