Holidays bring together lots of people, and lots of stress
It is finally January and everyone I talk to seems to be breathing a sigh of relief. The holidays are hard. Little kids, teenagers, young adults, parents and grandparents all seem pretty burnt out after Thanksgiving followed by Christmas, Hannukah, or whatever form of celebration they choose. Everyone seems to be ready to move on, and have a little, or a lot, more time to themselves. I feel the same way, but I am trying to pause and think about why the holidays are so stressful and how I can help my mediation clients navigate holidays more successfully, with less stress and more happiness. I think the first step is just to recognize that the holidays are hard, and to think about why.
High expectations and lots of compromise are a tough combination
Holidays are a constant evolution of hopes and dreams combining with reality. There is, inevitably, a lot of disappointment. For a child the disappointment might be asking for a pony, a real live one, and getting a My Little Pony. Or it could be splitting the holiday between two newly separated parents. Teenagers might resent all the mandatory family time. Adults are scrambling to make the holiday perfect for kids and adult family members. Often we think back to our memories of our childhood holidays and either feel like we must recreate the magic we remember, or avoid at all costs the family blow ups of the past. Either way, there is a lot of stress to manage. And everyone in the family is coming with their own combination of hopes and fears, sadness and joy.
Acknowledging stress alleviates stress
A good first step to managing holiday stress is to acknowledge that this is a challenging time. Even just pausing and acknowledging internally, to yourself, that you are struggling. Even better, contemplating what specifically is a challenge can then allow for some planning around reducing stress. In the immediate aftermath of the holiday you can think back to what worked well, and what didn’t, and make a better plan for next year.
So, for example, maybe you traveled with your children to a relatives’ home and it didn’t go well. In retrospect, was the problem that everyone felt sad about being away from home, or were the hosts overwhelmed by the kids, or both? Think about what didn’t work, not just for you, but for your kids, spouse, the hosts. Try to put yourself in everyone’s shoes and think of what would have worked better. If possible, engage in a conversation with your spouse, child, or relatives and see what they have to say. For example, if your hosts seemed overwhelmed, you could say, “We so much appreciated you having us, I know we are a lot of work to host. What do you think worked, or didn’t work that well?” Maybe you can come up with a better plan for next year. It is always worth a try. Holiday traditions are nice, but not if no one actually enjoys them.
Families in transition need extra support
If something big has changed in your family, a new partner, new marriage, a new baby, a separation, divorce or death, the holidays are even harder. If someone had died, or is absent due to divorce, then their absence may be felt very keenly. A time of celebration becomes a time of mourning. That can be very challenging, particularly as everyone mourns differently, and if there are small children as part of the holiday, everyone feels they must carry on and celebrate for their benefit. It is a hard balance and it is better to just to acknowledge the change. Give a grieving spouse some space to mourn. Acknowledge that having kids joyously tearing up wrapping paper while you are fixated on the person who is gone is really hard. Not talking about it makes the problem feel bigger, and everyone feels more isolated.
Equally challenging can be integrating new people into a holiday. A new partner or spouse disrupts the old traditions; not everyone may welcome them into the fold. Parents may disapprove of a new partner, children may not be enthusiastic about a new step parent. The new person may feel sad to be away from their own family on a holiday, missing their traditions and their company. Even a new baby, as sweet and exciting as he or she is, can cause a lot of frustration and disappointment. Depending on the age, babies can be very high maintenance, and, if they are crawling or cruising, cause a lot of damage. The grandparent who is overjoyed to have a grand baby may be totally overwhelmed by hosting that baby for any length of time.
New Year, new approach to holidays
As you think back on the holidays, and think ahead to next year, give yourself a moment to reflect on what was hard, and what made you happy. Really think about it: take a walk and ponder the holiday, or write down a list of the good, the bad and the disasters (hopefully there weren’t many). Then think about it from the perspective of the people you were with. Would their list look like yours? If yes, why? If no, why not? Not sure, ask them. With a family that is in the middle of a transition, think about what traditions you really want to maintain, and which ones you don’t feel strongly about, or would like to discard. Discuss it with your family. You may discover that no one wants to go on the very expensive annual ski trip, but visiting the tree in Rockefeller Center is a cherished ritual. Opening up the dialogue provides the opportunity to better understand what the holidays mean to everyone, and how there can be more joy and less frustration.