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Four Tips To Keep Your Holiday Stress With Family In Check

Real family gatherings might not look like a gauzy image on a greeting card. Let’s face it: there is conflict in lots of families, ramped up when they gather. Can you do anything about that tightness in your belly at the thought of who’s coming for dinner?

We think so, based on hearing from many families, particularly those with elders, here at Part of the difficulty with holiday gatherings is expectations. You want it to be nice. You want no arguing. You expect that if there is a lot of preparation and work and good food, that will make it go well. And that is sometimes how it turns out, but sometimes it just doesn’t go that way.

You may expect that if they would just be reasonable and do what you want, you wouldn’t be so stressed out. But your relatives do what they do and you can find yourself being anxious when your family member acts the way they always acted in the past and you react in distress. Someone drinks too much, says obnoxious things or does nothing to help the ones hosting the event. Arguments break out. You get disappointed and maybe angry. Sigh.

How about the old folks?

And those aging folks sometimes seem to just not listen. They rant about whatever they believe in. They get upset at what seem like minor things. They criticize or irk you. They seem to be confused when you ask a question. Dad/Mom/someone else is so stubborn! You get frustrated, and upset. In all, it’s not so fun.

We all do have the opportunity to transform the way we deal with these family get-togethers if we plan in advance about our own choices, not those of the others who show up. It makes sense to have a plan. Here is what can and does work with elders and others at the family dinner table or other gathering.

Tactics to try:

  1. Lower your expectations. What is going to happen when others are there is not within your control. Go to the gathering with an open mind and knowledge that you do not have to react nor respond to anything someone else does. Just abide by it and understand that that’s their thing, not yours. When you do not respond to something negative from another, it gets no oxygen and that can stop the negativity. Changing your own expectations of how it is supposed to be can make a world of difference.
  2. Make your polite, private request of the “problem person” before the start of the gathering. Ask respectfully for what you want to see happen. For example if your sibling always makes nasty remarks about others there, you can ask them outside the presence of anyone else if they are aware that the remarks they make like that upset you and cause you to feel sad and stressed. Take responsibility for your own reaction to the words. If you made your request that they avoid doing this again and they acknowledge it, great. And if they ignore it, you have already made yourself clear. There is no benefit to you to react, point out that they screwed up again or whatever it is. Let it go. You advocated for what YOU want and that is all you can do.
  3. Aim for communication in a non-violent way. We humans need to be heard. Listen to the other person without interrupting, even if you don’t like what you hear. You can completely avoid vehemently disagreeing with what anyone else says, according to a helpful reference, Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D. Acknowledge: (”Got it”. or “I hear you”.) No need more be said. The person who spoke can feel heard, and that’s all you have to do. Imagine if no one says anything in disagreement. Arguments can be avoided.
  4. Be sensitive to declining ability of your aging loved ones. As people age, they may have trouble hearing and keep saying “what?”. Or your aging parent is confused and you have to keep repeating explanations. Conversely, they make keep repeating the same story or question over and over, not realizing it. It can feel annoying if you are not ready for this. But if you see it coming, understand and accept it. They can’t help their own decline and they may not accept it at all. Do not argue with aging parents, point out their mistakes or tell them they’re being unreasonable. That does no good whatsoever and can cause them to feel shame or discomfort. That’s not what any caring person wants to convey to an elder. There are other times and better settings to address the health declines of our aging loved ones.

In all, some family gatherings can go beautifully and there’s little problem with anything. In others, the situation can get unnecessarily ugly and unpleasant. If you go to your family gathering with ideas of how to avoid past mistakes with a plan, you’re ahead of the game already. When you’re willing to avoid responding to things that don’t need a response, and practice the art of saying little, you may be surprised at how you can lower your own stress level.

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