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12 ways to manage family holiday visits

Everyone has a different expectation of how a holiday family gathering will go. These different expectations can quickly create disappointments and frustrations. Plus there are a lot of societal messages (and Hallmark movies) trying to convince us that holidays with family are supposed to be a certain way. Let’s all just accept reality, untwist from the fairytale, and instead consider some strategies to help minimize the distress for yourself.

Family gatherings are nearly always complicated and this year has an extra layer. If you’re like me, safety concerns may have kept you from having your typical family time last year because of safety. Because we know more about the virus and have additional safety tools, some of us may be able to gather this year.

And...this can create some extra pressure for gatherings to be “ideal” to make up for the lost visits. Unfortunately though, we might not be as equipped to deal with the typical family frustrations because we are all emotionally depleted with life right now, and we are a little bit out of practice with social interactions.

Let’s get prepared.

1. Create a self-care plan

Ideally, you can create a comprehensive plan for before, during, and after the visit.

Before - what can you do or listen to on your drive/journey that will put you in the best state of mind when you arrive? What would be best to avoid? Do you need to stop at the park for a walk before pulling into the driveway? Do you need to stop at the grocery to be sure you have your favorite foods?

During - plan ahead for tactics you can use to carve out time for your emotional regulation and soothing. Think about things you can bring with you that are pleasurable or uplifting. Consider packing a favorite type of book to read or a game to play or shoes to take a nice hike. Have easy access to mood-enhancing music, photos that make you smile, a symbolic object, a comforting food or beverage. This post has some easy and actionable ways to change your body’s emotional state while you’re visiting. See also “exit plan” below for more ideas.

After - once the visit is over, be thoughtful about what you need in order to get back into a calm state. Do you need an extra day off before going into work? Do you need some alone time? Some laughter time with friends? Some time to journal about what happened on your visit? Think about what will help you recalibrate and give that gift to yourself.

2. Identify your needs and limits ahead of time

Set boundaries for yourself and communicate them to others. You’ll want to think about things like the length of your stay, where you’ll sleep, what your sleep schedule is, topics to avoid, activities to avoid, vaccination and mask-wearing expectations, foods you will or won’t eat, and how you will handle alcohol. Whether you communicate these limits aloud or just have them clearly defined in your head, you will feel stronger saying “no” when you need to and saying “yes” only when it’s best for you.

3. Anticipate some guilt feelings

It’s common to feel some guilt when setting limits, especially if you are not practiced with it and your family does not expect it out of you. Your mom might make that disappointed face and your sister might try to convince you to change your decision. Try setting a few small limits for the first visit if you are new at it. “Dad, I know we usually stay up late to watch the game every year, but I’m really trying to be careful with my sleep so I’m gonna head off at 10pm.” Then next time if you decide you want to book a hotel(!) instead of staying at the family house, there’s a precedent of you making and communicating decisions confidently.

4. Reflect on past difficulties and plan ahead to handle them

Think about some of the patterns and situations that have created difficulty or arguments in the past. If you know that your mom is highly likely to comment on your appearance in a triggering way, prepare yourself. Consider (and maybe even practice) a verbal response you can give or an internal coping method to navigate the difficult moment(s). Your breath is always with you and it’s the body’s natural regulation strategy, so take a quick read of these breathing strategies to learn (or remember) how to calm yourself.

5. Expect the expected

Along the same lines, it can be empowering to anticipate and expect behaviors and situations rather than thinking “they better not_____” or “I hope they don’t ____.” It’s also helpful to expect that buttons of yours will still be buttons. When my mom instructs me in the kitchen like I am an unskilled preteen instead of a grown adult who has been cooking for decades, I get a little agitated! I know this and I prepare myself for it, rather than hoping that she won’t say something or that I won’t feel something.

6. Don’t expect yourself to not be bothered

When we deny that our buttons are in there, we can end up making it harder to cope. Often clients will say something like “well I shouldn’t still be frustrated by this, it happens every time.” Or “If I was a better human, I would just get over it.” This kind of self-talk is invalidating and unfair. We are allowed to have the buttons we have; shaming ourselves for it will not make them easier to navigate. Accept your buttons and prepare yourself to take care of them. The STOP skill walks you through how to do this step-by-step.

7. Have an emergency exit plan

Come up with a few ready “excuses'' to get yourself out of the house spontaneously if needed. This can be an errand to run, other people to visit, a school/work project that you need time for, or a friend you promised you would call to check on. A quick run to the store or CVS is always a handy option (they seem to be everywhere!). Activities like wanting to take a walk “to help with digestion” or simply just wanting to lie down & rest are easily understood by most people. Knowing that you have an escape option in your pocket helps with the trapped feeling.

8. Make it fun

Some folks find humor to be essential for navigating those challenging people dynamics. If you are fairly certain that your uncle will say at least 3 politically insensitive comments, maybe just place a bet with yourself or your partner about it. This takes you from feeling oppressed by someone’s behavior (that’s most likely unchangeable) to feeling able to let it roll off your back more easily. One couple I knew created a bingo card of all the annoying things that were likely to happen on their trip. It became a game to see how many squares they could check off, instead of bracing themselves and stewing about each frustration.

9. Identify a partner-in-crime

This might be a spouse or a sibling or maybe even someone not present on your visit. But try to have a partner to debrief with on site (or on the phone) if things really start bubbling up inside. It’s super soothing to have a like-minded person validate that what you are experiencing is stressful. Even better if they can serve as a distraction or an encourager.

10. Identify elements you can control

When we feel a bit trapped in someone else’s home or by someone else’s schedule, we can feel more empowered by focusing on the things we have control over. At a very basic level, we can control what we choose to focus on with our mind and what we choose to do with our bodies. Beyond that, we can also control where we are in the house, who we position ourselves next to, what we choose to eat or drink (or not eat/drink), when we choose to wake-up or go to bed, what we choose to wear (comfortable clothes can really help here), whether we choose to do some physical movement to release some stress, etc. Identify in advance the areas over which you will have control and keep reminding yourself that you are not trapped.

11. Focus on others

The holidays can offer you a time to distract yourself from what’s going on inside you and focus on others. Some folks may be in even more distress than you and the realization of this can offer us a helpful perspective. Consider something like volunteering at a local shelter holiday meal, planning a visit with a former teacher, or checking in on the neighbor who doesn’t have a lot of family.

12. Remind yourself that it’s temporary

The holidays come every year and they go every year. Holiday time often amplifies the intensity of our challenging emotions, which are fueled by thoughts and messages we tell ourselves. Family gatherings take you to the original source of some of your unhelpful thinking patterns such as catastrophizing, all-or-nothing thinking, and “should” thoughts. Remind yourself of some ways to debunk unhelpful thinking patterns and focus on what is fine, neutral or even positive about the moment you are in.

Do your best to go into the holiday season with your eyes open and with a plan in place. You know your struggles and you know your needs. Trust your own knowledge and validate yourself by meeting those needs.

I wish you a smooth holiday season or at minimum... one that lets you feel proud of how you coped.



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