Making the Upcoming Holidays a Little More Enjoyable

4 min read

It is almost Thanksgiving—that time of year that some people love and others dread. People love it because it is the get-together with no pressure to give the right gift and being with relatives can be energizing. And, it is all about the food. People dread it, as young adults come home from college with changed political views or relatives have driven miles in lousy weather and traffic only to sleep in a crowded room on a futon with a snoring grandparent.

Then the “fun” begins. The larger the family, the more likely the following is going to happen: someone says or does something that is later (or immediately) regretted; politics comes up after everyone promises not to talk about politics; someone feels left out, ignored, dissed, unloved, less favored, or under-appreciated; or people just feel stressed from travel, lack of sleep, changed schedules and diets, and uncomfortable quarters.

Are there ways to avoid all of this and make holiday get-togethers wonderful? In a word, nope. Some amount of family miscommunication and discomfort is to be expected but there may be ways to reduce the likelihood that, across and within generations, trouble will brew.

Tips for family get-togethers

Geoffrey Greif

Geoffrey Greif

1. Be aware that old patterns of behavior often return when family members gather. The adult child (college student or older) and parent may fall into old routines that are a far cry from the adult child’s sense of competence in the world outside the family realm. The 21-, 31-, or 41-year-old who is (pick one): a. working at Starbucks; b. running a business; c. managing an acapella group; d. arguing cases in court; e. counseling individuals; f. providing health care; or g. volunteering each week in their place of worship still gets treated as if they are 14 and unable to tie their shoes. It is not only parents and children who fall into past patterns; that same adult may also be treated by (or be treating) a younger or older sibling who wants to maintain the status quo of their childhood and reenact roles that are no longer extant.

What to do about it? Be your new self, not your old self. If you are your old self, you are continuing a cycle of behavior you may not wish to continue. Whether you directly address this treatment with the other family member(s) will depend on the context and if the holidays are the best time to talk. If there is too much going on at the time, wait until January. Adult relationships take time to titrate.

2. Set expectations appropriately. Holidays have huge buildups. Norman Rockwell made his career on idealized versions of the American family but while some families achieve that ideal, most do not. Figure out what you want to happen. If you have other family members traveling with you (a partner or children, for example) talk to them so expectations are set for your team.

3. Try to keep to your same eating, sleeping, exercising, drinking, and alone time routine. This is not always easy, but it is important.

4. Unless they can be discussed without a lot of rancor, avoid political topics of which there are many, from the Ukraine War to the Israel-Gaza war to the fall elections. Remember that Uncle Henry has always been a Democrat (or Republican or libertarian) and you are unlikely, over a plate of turkey with gravy, to convince him to change party affiliation.

5. Parents whose children have gone away and are returning from college need to negotiate with them, and vice versa. First-year college students, in particular, are balancing new independence where they set their own schedule and are now returning to the fold for a few days or weeks. Who are they? Are they the children who were living in the parent’s home four months ago and subject to their rules, or are they young adults experimenting with a new self-image? This is a bi-directional conversation in which both parties must be flexible. Discuss expectations in advance and be willing to bend a little.

6. Balance time with family and friends. Returning home after being away for a while? Seeing old friends may be important. The trick is to balance time with family and time with friends who may also be returning home and trying to balance their time with their own friends and family.

7. Let it go when possible. Holidays can raise ambivalent feelings around long-ago memories, current relationships, and future possibilities. Much of life is shaped by affection, ambiguity, and ambivalence. By lowering expectations, it will be easier to let things slide a bit. Take a breath and focus on what is working for you and your family, not what is not working. In other words, build a context of love.

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