Food, family, fun — what’s not to love about the holiday season? Well, sometimes, a lot. Festive gatherings can be great, but they can also set the scene for interpersonal conflicts, political arguments, stressful conversations, and plenty of other circumstances that are less than ideal for your overall health and happiness.
Luckily, experts like clinical psychologist Christine Celio has plenty of tips and tools to navigate thorny situations during the holiday season and beyond. Here’s our Q+A with Celio and Richardson, designed to support you through the tougher family times.
Many people travel home for the holidays and stay in close quarters with family they don’t often see. How can they get through that experience if there are existing issues or disagreements around personal matters, politics,, etc?
Celio: The best way to reduce family conflict, if possible, is to not get in them in the first place. Most people know the trigger issues for their family members, so if there is a possibility that someone will start something, that is a great time to go run an errand, change the topic, or otherwise redirect. If you can't, generally I suggest that people try to approach situations with genuine curiosity about their own experience instead of criticism. If someone drags you into a conflict, political or otherwise, I think that letting people run out of steam and not engaging is also a good bet. Let's be honest, you are not going to convince someone about your viewpoint on climate change in a heated argument after a few glasses of wine. Engaging in the conflict is just going to bring you both down.
If being around family causes someone stress and anxiety, what's a self preservation tip that can enable someone to survive the holidays?
Celio: I always recommend that my patients create reasons to leave the house or be away from the family for some part of the day, every day. This could be taking over the grocery list and going shopping, running errands, or dropping off holiday treats at the neighbor's house. These tasks will make you look useful and give you some breathing room. And I always recommend trying to keep active. We know that exercise improves mood, among many other health benefits, so creating opportunities to walk (even if it is around the indoor mall!), sign up for an exercise class, go to the gym with a parent, run the turkey trot, or lock yourself in a room and do a YouTube yoga class — whatever it is, it will be helpful.
So many people get lonely over the holidays — what are some ways to help them feel connected to others?
Celio: Be proactive in making plans with those you love! Not all people are close to or have a family of origin, so creating a family of choice is great during the holidays. If you have friends who are going somewhere for a holiday, ask if you can tag along. Invite people over, or make plans to go out and celebrate with others — don't wait for the invitations. If you are someone with few friends in the area, or nowhere to go on specific holidays (Christmas, New Years, Australia Day), sign up to serve dinner for the homeless or some other volunteer options. You are likely to meet people and hear about other activities going on.
If someone's family doesn’t accept them as they are, when is it okay to remove themselves from family functions and what's a healthy way to do that?
This is a tough one. We are social creatures, and being around family is hardwired in us — we are always looking for our tribe. But if your family of origin rejects you, weigh the cost/benefit of going to a family function.
Are you worried that you will miss seeing that one family member you really like or want to see? Find another time to see them. Is the guilt (or guilt trip you will receive) of not going worse than the comments you will have to field? Only you can answer that.
If you decide not to go to family functions, it is hard to say how to do it in a healthy way — people's circumstances can be so different. Sometimes families are passive aggressive, actively cruel, or sometimes are fine until the drinking happens or so many other variations.. Some good advice: when they go low, you should go high. Behave in a way that you are proud of in this moment and in the future.