Oh, the holidays. The family gathers for fun, food, and festivities. All the children are scrubbed, dressed, and well-behaved. The perfectly decorated house is full of happy people and polite conversation. There is no talk of football, religion, or politics. The food is tasty and the wine is plentiful — but not too plentiful.
This is how it is for your family, right?
Yeah, mine neither.
It’s more like lots of yelling (most, but not all of it, joyous), a little bit of crying (most, but not all of it, from the children) and at least one burned and inedible dish (most often, but not always, dinner rolls forgotten in the oven). You know, more Griswold than Bailey.
If that sounds like you and your family, it doesn’t mean the holidays, you, or your family are total failures. Being with family can be stressful, especially when we don’t see each other all that often and even more especially when we mix in (most often, but not always, overly) high hopes of joy, love, and laughter for the holiday season.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can take control.
With a little expectation management and some specific stress-busting strategies, you can ease the strain of the holiday season for yourself and all those around you.
1. Plan Your Stay Carefully
I’m not talking about when your flight leaves or who’s going to pick you up at the airport. Think through how long is reasonable for your visit. Where a two-day visit may feel rushed and go by too quickly, a seven-day stay may feel endless and leave you counting down the moments until you board your flight.
The perfect visit length is in the eye of the beholder, but leaving with a slight twinge of longing to stay will make the next visit much more pleasant. Having a day or two to decompress from your trip before you resume your work/school/everyday schedule is a bonus.
2. Don’t Try to Do (or Be) Everything with Everybody
You haven’t been to your hometown in a year. You want to see mom and dad and your brother and sister, of course. But, there’s also your best friend from sixth grade who’s in town that week. And your favorite teacher who just retired. And that cute boy who ignored you all through high school but now works at the Walgreens, still lives at home, and only wears Star Trek t-shirts.
Unless you are planning an extended stay (in which case, I’d like you to re-read tip number one), then prioritize who you want to spend time with and forget about the rest. You sent them a card, right? If you end up with a couple free hours and you want to swing by Walgreens, great. Just don’t sacrifice quality time with the ones who really matter to make it happen.
3. Strive for Fun and Connection, Not Perfection
Enjoy yourself and allow what happens to happen. It’s simple, but not always easy. When we try to force things or control everything around us to create our ideal holiday, we can make ourselves miserable. Even if the day turns out just as we fantasized, was it worth the effort, tension, and anxiety it took to get there?
It’s a holiday celebration — so celebrate. If some wine gets spilled when Uncle Teddy tumbles over the tree, so be it. If the dressing burns or the soufflé falls, it doesn’t matter in the larger scheme of things. Remember, the holidays are a time of love and caring — for people — not the decorations, the food, or the presents.
4. Have an Escape Plan
You’re there to see family. As it should be. But don’t neglect your own mental well-being. If you’re an introvert like me, all that family time can leave you exhausted, cranky, and feeling less than festive. Have a strategy to escape.
A last-minute gift you need to buy could translate into a few precious moments in the car by yourself (and that trip to Walgreen’s — see tip number two). Or get up before everyone else and go for a walk. You’ll kill two birds with one stone by getting some quality alone time and some low-level activity to stretch out your achy bones.
5. Treat Family Like Strangers You’re Meeting for the First Time
This is a tough one. After all, our families are the people who know us best because they have known us the longest. But everyone changes, day by day, month by month, year by wow-it’s-been-that-long year. Instead of focusing on all the things you know about your family members, try to find out all the things you don’t know about them.
It’s funny that we’ll treat perfect strangers with the utmost civility and deference, but treat our family members like that guy who cut in front of you in the bank line. Treat your mom like the wonderful, interesting, and wise woman you ran into at the bakery. Treat your brother like the witty and successful man that was so interesting at the cocktail party. Just try it, and see what you learn and feel about your loved ones.
6. Don’t Revert to Your Childhood Role
Were you the baby of the family like me? Or maybe the responsible and intelligent oldest child? The rebellious and angst-filled middle child (I’m looking at you, Jan Brady)? There’s something to be said for birth order and how it influences who we become. But, really, that idea only plays if you buy into it.
You are a product of your genetics and your environment, but you have a say in how those things play out and you can choose to break free of those roles. Don’t fall into old habits when you go home for the holidays. Shake things up. Sit in grandpa’s chair at the dinner table. Take command of the remote control. Kick mom out of the kitchen and take charge of the cooking. Or better yet, take everyone out to dinner.
Were you the sibling who always had to be right and get the last word? Did you argue with your sister about everything, even things that didn’t matter, like whether Justin Bieber would win an arm-wrestling match with Taylor Swift? (My money would be on Taylor.) Go out of your way to agree with everything your sister says. You’ll have fun and it will drive her nuts.
Were you the quiet sibling who kept to herself? Did you hide in the corner during holiday parties and avoid talking to anyone other than your mom or dad? This year be the crazy one. Brush up on your jokes or take a storytelling class and dazzle everyone at the dinner table. Suggest an after-dinner lip-sync battle and break out your best Lady Gaga.
7. Stay in a Hotel
This might seem like a pretty rude thing to do, but it can be the best way to make the holiday season with your family as stress-free as possible. You can spend as much time as you want with your family during the day, but get away and recharge at night.
At the hotel, you don’t have to clean up after yourself, listen to anyone else snore in the next room (we’re assuming it’s a nice hotel), wake up at the crack of dawn when Mom gets up to start breakfast, or watch an America’s Got Talent marathon. You have peace and quiet, and get to do it all over the next day.
And, guess what? The family member you usually stay with will probably enjoy the break, as well.
Let Go of the Holiday Stress — and Celebrate
Maybe you have the perfect family and the holidays are always a time of love, laughter, and joy. Most of us, though, have messy lives with family members we love — but who can also be annoying, frustrating, and aggravating.
And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
After all, family is family. We just need to decide to focus on the love, laughter, and joy rather than the messy.