Survival guide for family get-togethers

Posted On October 17, 2006

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Are the holidays already stressing you out? “Get real,” say Indiana University experts from its Human Development and Family Studies Program. Unrealistic expectations are a key cause of family-related stress over the holidays. The experts offer a survival guide, of sorts, to help make the holidays a little easier this year.

Contemporary families have different demands on their time because of their jobs outside of the home. Often, they have little control over their work obligations, so they need to adjust how they celebrate their holidays, says Maresa Murray, an assistant professor whose expertise includes African-American families and health patterns. This could mean traveling less and less face-to-face time with relatives. “So, I’m saying we have to work with what we have,” she said. Murray said families need to think strategically to turn their limited free time into quality family time. She offers the following suggestions:

  • Try out some older traditions, such as caroling, because they remind us of idyllic, happy times and can make us feel good.
  • Create new traditions that “may make no sense and defy all ideas of holiday traditions.” In other words, have fun! One example is the Barnabas Ritual, where everyone writes down their name on a sheet of paper. It is then passed around for each person to record something nice about everyone else at the table, even if it’s “I like your green sox.” By the end of the ritual, each person is left with a “take home record” of wonderful affirmations from family and friends.
  • Keep your perspective, think, “This, too, shall pass.” Regardless of how annoying Uncle Henry can be or how concerned you might be about how others measure you, realize the holiday season soon will pass, and your normal life will return as you know it.

Holidays often are synonymous with fattening comfort foods. Murray suggests enjoying these while eating more raw foods because of their nutritional benefits, which also can boost energy levels. Many people are watching their diets throughout the year as America faces an obesity epidemic, Murray said. This consciousness can be made part of holiday meal plans by including healthy dishes.

Competition and unrealistic expectations ramp up stress around the holidays, according to Robert Billingham, an associate professor who specializes in interpersonal relationships and divorce, particularly its effect on children. “The holidays are about family, but we become victimized by the belief that everyone’s supposed to be joyful and happy,” he said. “We set the expectations too high to begin with.” Pressure mounts to give impressive gifts. This competition can exacerbate tenuous relationships involving divorced couples. Billingham offers the following tips:

  • Focus on the meaning of the holiday, not the problems (such as finances and travel). “The holidays deal with the appreciation for what we have, the fact that we have enough to survive, to exist and to be comfortable,” Billingham said. “It’s very simplistic, but the more we can focus on those types of issues and less on things such as the perfect family image or the perfect holiday image, we’re better off.”
  • Volunteer around the holidays at a charity. Billingham recommends hands-on work, as opposed to simply writing a check, because it makes the experience more personal and helps people appreciate their own fortunes.
  • Establish a family gift exchange, they can be a lot of fun and save family members time and money.
  • Turn the TV off when the family is together or having dinner. Instead, encourage people to talk about their past year and what they will be doing in the coming year. “It’s almost a lost art, to go around a circle and share,” Billingham said.
  • Divorced parents should contact each other through notes or other means to discuss spending limits and gifts, so they don’t buy their children the same thing. Billingham suggests the parents jointly purchase a large gift for their child while still giving the children smaller gifts individually. “This communicates that we don’t live together, but we’re not going to compete against each other,” Billingham said. “It’s very respectful.”

With the extra shopping, errands, school activities, travel, parties, family gatherings and the inevitable missed naps, children’s behavior becomes “basically unmanageable” over the holidays, said Maria Schmidt, an assistant professor who specializes in early childhood development. “The bottom line is, kids really thrive on routine. When they know what’s going on and know what to expect, they know how to behave.” Schmidt offers the following tip:

  • Adjust your expectations concerning your children’s behavior, acknowledge that their routines have changed, and thus their behavior will be different.
  • Listen to the kids. Their behavior is how they communicate, Schmidt said. “We can learn a lot by listening and observing.”
  • Don’t worry so much about what extended family members think. Unless they have small children, they likely will not understand how disruptive eating dinner during nap time, for example, can be. 

Visiting the relatives during the holiday season may be more stressful to your toddler than you imagine. Newborns to children age 6 feel the stress their parents experience. For young children, holidays can be a stressful time, because their scheduled lives often are disrupted with visits to grandma’s house or trips to the mall.

“The stress you are feeling as a parent is compounded in the children, and they don’t understand why their parents are behaving so differently,” said Mary McMullen, associate professor of early childhood education in the IU School of Education. McMullen said the children do not have the words yet to explain why their parents are upset or angry, and the unpredictable behavior their parents exhibit worries them. “Their whole life has been turned upside down,” McMullen said.

“Keep things as normal and routine as possible.” For families who are making a long distance trip, McMullen suggests trying to keep routine activities on a normal schedule, such as meals, play or reading time and bed time. Try to explain to children how you feel in words they understand like, “Mommy is very tired” or “Mommy is worried about the trip.” “This is a good time to have dialogue about emotions,” McMullen said.

“You don’t have to say ‘Grandma drives me insane,’ but talking about how you’re extra tired is a very good way to help explain to children how you feel.” Signs that your child is not adjusting well include: extremes in emotion, mood swings, excessive sleeping, excessive screaming and crying, and difficulties with food or bathroom habits.