The Return of Holiday Season Agita

Family drama around the holidays is such a cliché that I can probably name a dozen movies off the top of my head that start with the premise of a moderately dysfunctional clan getting together for Thanksgiving or Christmas. (My favorites are “The Family Stone” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” in case you were wondering.) As dispiriting, and grave, as the Covid-19 pandemic has been, one of the few positives, at least for some people, was a reprieve from the stress of these gatherings: a break from guilt trips about who’s hosting, who’s traveling and when, and thinly veiled insults about your cooking. This stuffing is so … interesting. It’s not my recipe, is it?

While Covid is still with us (along with R.S.V. and the flu), air travel is looking like it’s back to 2019 levels, which suggests that for many Americans, visiting family and all its attendant emotional complexity is back on the table.

If you’re partnered and have kids, and you’re fortunate enough to have living relatives on both sides who want to see your babies, this can create several potential challenges, according to the three mental health professionals I spoke to for this newsletter. “Holidays are a minefield and every therapist in the U.S. will probably be talking about them for the next three months,” Sinead Smyth, a family therapist based in California, said in an email.

The rules of space and time often prevent us from being able to see all the family members who want to see us, and vice versa, because even though The Holidays™ are a season, Thanksgiving and Christmas are technically two 24-hour periods, and travel around those days can be exorbitantly expensive. Many families must choose between several interested parties requesting their attendance. The movie “Four Christmases” is based on this premise, as a beleaguered Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn haul themselves to the four separate abodes of their respective divorced parents — and high jinks, of course, ensue.

Unless everyone lives locally and you’re willing to do a lot of schlepping, you’ll probably have to choose one destination per holiday, inevitably disappointing somebody. Hanukkah’s profile is raised, to an extent, by its proximity to Christmas, so go ahead and throw it into the mix too if you, like me, are in a multifaith family.

I asked these therapists how to manage conversations with, let’s say, your mother, if you won’t be going home for Thanksgiving this year.

Susan Stiffelman, a family therapist and the author of “Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected,” said that the first thing to do is approach the conversation with compassion and understanding. She recommends saying something like, “I understand how desperately you want to see us and the kids. It makes so much sense because it’s been so long, and we love you,” before dropping the hammer of bad news, because it could soften the blow.

If you get pushback, don’t try to approach the response with family math (“we saw you last Christmas, and now it’s my spouse’s turn”), because that could just inflame the situation, Stiffelman said. “When a person is upset, they’re in their emotional brain, and all the logic or wordy justifications that are intended to assuage or comfort a person’s left, rational brain are useless,” she added.

Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and the author of “Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict,” who has previously contributed to Times Opinion, told me that if family members are going to lay on the guilt after you’ve made your decision about where to spend the holidays, try to tolerate it without lashing out. “The person who feels guilty may respond more aggressively and critically,” but you need to hold your ground and, even though it’s difficult, try to respond with empathy and proactively offer another time the family can get together, he said. Maybe you can go see them in January or February when travel is less expensive, or promise the following Thanksgiving is theirs.

It’s helpful if you’re communicating with a particularly difficult family member to use your partner as a buffer and an ally, said Smyth. “If you know that your partner’s mother is going to launch into a major guilt trip or make this all about her, prepare your responses in advance. Just because someone throws a ball at you doesn’t mean to have to catch it,” she said. “The husband in a couple I worked with would simply nod his head in agreement with his overbearing and narcissistic mother-in-law when she launched into criticism, and then he’d politely change the subject, usually to what she planned to cook. It worked.”

I realize this is all just the lead-up to the actual holiday gatherings themselves, which may be a reminder of all sorts of baggage and make you behave like the petulant teenager you once were (not that I know anything about that). But this counsel will hopefully get you through the next month and a half with your family relationships intact, or at least strong enough to deal with the inevitable unsolicited parenting advice coming your way.

Want More?

  • According to a poll conducted in 2020 by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, nearly half of parents report conflict with their kids’ grandparents about parenting issues. Discipline is the No. 1 issue that causes disagreement, followed by meals and snacks, screen time and manners.

  • December means a cornucopia of gifts in my household. Here’s how I keep my kids from becoming materialistic gift monsters over the holidays.

  • Relatedly, last year I pondered the question: Is Holiday Gift-Giving Really Worth It?

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