Navigating family stress during the holidays

For many families, the holidays is a period of family stress and totally unrelated to television commercials and movies that generally portray super-happy ever-loving “perfect” families, says Stanford University health psychologist Kelly McGonigal.

McGonigal discussed this gap between what people desire and what they experience with ‘loved ones’ and relatives during the holiday season in a recent session of Stanford University Open Office Hours.

In order to navigate family stress with poise, compassion and willpower, McGonigal offers two strategies.

Enter family situations knowing you’re willing to give

What do you do if you know some family members do not get on and that there is friction between them? Should you even consider spending time with them over Christmas?

If you don’t attend the family gathering you may end up feeling disappointed, but joining the get-together could be toxic.

Either way, McGonigal says, “The deeper pain will be present no matter what you decide to do.”

The choice is yours – it is important to remember that you are not helpless, you do have a choice. You cannot be forced into spending time with your family.

McGonigal says:

“The key is recognizing that you get to make the decision based on your own values; approach the situation with an awareness of what you are willing to give to your relatives and yourself.”

Be considerate for those who are suffering

Most people facing situations of family stress during the holidays can feel extremely isolated. It is tempting to wonder whether you are the only person who does not have that ‘perfect’ group of loved ones.

Exercise self-compassion, McGonigal suggests. View the world in perspective, and think of others who are also suffering during this supposedly merry season.

McGonigal gives the following examples of people one could feel compassion for during the holiday season:

  • Somebody who has lost a child, parent or spouse.
  • Those spending their first Christmas behind bars.
  • Loved ones separated by war.

McGonigal said:

“There are so many ways in which countless people are meeting their own gap between what they might idealize for the holidays and what their reality is.”

See your place within this larger group of people to help find compassion and acceptance for whatever perils you may have to face over this holiday season.