Surviving Families and the Holidays

In the last 50 years or so, the face of the family has been changing rapidly. Technology has allowed family members to move further away from each other and pursue education and job opportunities. In addition, families are now made of blends of divorced persons, gay and lesbian combinations and occasionally multiple person relationships such as open marriages.

Whatever we define as family, the holidays bring us together, for better or, sometimes for worse. The shadow of the past is present during these times, with memories of prior gatherings not far from the minds of all those present. For many of us, these shadows are scary with old conflicts lying just around the corner, waiting to rear their heads and bring us into the same old patterns and arguments.


Part of the problem is that often people’s files about their relatives haven’t been updated. Our memories are from years ago and we haven’t seen the change and growth that everyone has undergone in the meantime. Even if we have been in close proximity we are so tied into the old patterns that we remain captured in the dynamic.

We want to keep our family obligations, in spite of mixed feelings about the holidays. The old feelings contain both the good and the bad, so how can we actualize the former and minimize the latter? Here are a few strategies:

Compassion: Remind yourself that we are all in the same boat in life. Even that relative that you can’t stand has gone through some of the same trials and tribulations that you have. If they create troubles for others, remember that this is often a response that has come out of some kind of fear from the past. One simple but true perspective is that for many people, fear runs their lives and when someone acts out its often when they are most fearful.

Be Helpful: The holidays have lots of obligations in one way or another. Keeping yourself busy with being helpful in various ways is a simple way to build up your positive image, both for yourself and your relatives. Remember: people may have old impressions of you that they need to update, show your best self to allow them to do that updating.

Do Something Different: This is in keeping with the last idea, but you should employ it more generally. Breaking out of old patterns with your family can leave everyone able to more relax and try something different. This could be something major like being the first to call and invite someone to your place for a change to suggesting something totally new and fun for an activity. It may be some small change like making a personal gift for everyone instead of buying something from the store. Whatever it is, a small change can snowball into something bigger, often making the holiday a special memory for everyone.

Consider and recognize the positive
: Make sure you tell people what you appreciate about them. Bring up old memories of things you liked in the past. This may set people on a role of what positive things they remember. Old Santa Claus stories or tales of New Years past can bring up good memories if they are done well.

Play With the Children: The kids in the family are often less threatening than the adults. The children appreciate the attention that an adult gives them and you may become their favorite “aunt” or “uncle” even if you’re their cousin! Remember to approach each child in an age appropriate way, an older child can feel misunderstood if they are invited to a game that’s meant for a younger one.

If all else fails become an anthropologist! : Taking a step back and observing may allow you to get the distance you need to deal with all the emotional triggers that you come across. Imagining yourself as a scientific observer studying the family can be one way to deal with the most difficult of situations. Ask yourself what may be behind the behaviors and patterns that you are seeing. Use your curiosity about the people that you’ve known all your life and you may be surprised to see them in a new light.

Using one or, even better, several of the above ideas can really help to shift the holiday experience for you and your family. Setting out with a positive, adventurous attitude is half the battle. You can be the one person to tip the whole event in a positive direction and make it a holiday everyone will remember.

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