Tips on Surviving the Holidays as a Family

Release Date: December 22, 2004 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Christmas is only hours away. Uncle Joe's unannounced visit and the children's expectations for a truckload of expensive presents are testing everyone's ability to be joyful and merry.

Unfortunately, the holidays offer great potential for family conflict, as well as happiness.

The interplay of families and the blessings and troubles in family relationships are issues Beatrice Wood, Ph.D., associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry and pediatrics at the University at Buffalo knows well.

Wood is president of the Family Process Institute, an independent, multidisciplinary, multinational organization dedicated to the development and exchange of new theories and research about families. The institute publishes the Family Process journal.

A specialist in child and adolescent psychiatry, Wood is a leading researcher on the association between emotional behavior within families and chronic health problems of children, in particular asthma and depression.

To help families emerge from the holidays happy and healthy, Wood and her Family Process editor, Evan Imber-Black, Ph.D., offer a baker's half-dozen of useful suggestions:

1. Don't choose the Christmas dinner table to open a long held secret. It may be tempting, because everyone is together, but you will likely be remembered as the person who "ruined Christmas." Secrets need to open in "regular time," not holiday time, when the family already is a bit tense.

2. If you are in a bicultural or bi-religion family, make sure there is enough room for the expression and appreciation of everyone's beliefs.

3. Think over and discuss your own family's heritage regarding the holidays. This can be a time to renew a sense of family history, appreciate symbols that may have been passed down over the generations and talk over what your family might want to preserve and what you might want to do differently. Rituals both connect people to a meaningful past and help move them into the present and future.

3. Be aware of, and talk over, the messages from the media and the shopping malls regarding what your own holiday should look like. Ask yourself and your family members which of these messages make sense, and which you prefer to ignore.

4. If you are in a divorced family, do whatever you can to minimize young children's sense that parents are in a competition over such things as time, best gifts, etc. Young children definitely do not need three Christmas dinners, and they have very good antennae for parental competition.

5. If your family has experienced a death in the past year, remember that holidays can be especially difficult. Many families try to celebrate "the same way we always did." This often brings a rigid sense to the holiday and prevents meaningful reminiscence and story-telling. Some families may try to "skip the holiday" and end up feeling bereft of needed support. Plan ways that can both honor your lost loved one - a memorial toast, a prayer, story-telling, a favorite recipe - and help everyone to be in the present. Remember, it's going to be different this year and every year, but keeping your rituals alive will anchor you.

6. If your family is at the stage of changing where the holiday celebration is held due to a new marriage, an aging parent or a death of the "ritual maker," be sure to talk over the new plans, rather than simply letting them happen. This is a time for new negotiations of relationships.

7. After the holiday, take a bit of time to talk over the three best and the three worst things about this year's celebration. Write these down and take a look at them next November. Follow this suggestion for a few years and you'll have the holiday everyone wants!

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