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  • Márcia Fervienza

4 Tips to Survive Difficult Family Members During The Holidays

This time of the year is happy for many, but may be a struggle for many others. Ideally, the holidays are a time for gathering around the table, sharing stories, catching up on each other’s lives, exchanging gifts, and eating delicious food. But that isn’t always the case, especially when challenging family members or members with mental disorders are present. For some adult children of mentally ill parents, this can be an especially stressful time. Sometimes they have kept little to no contact with the family for the entire year to protect their own mental and emotional health, maybe calling once a month for a quick check-up, and now they have to spend a week together. That can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to end badly. There are ways to deal with the repressed or unresolved emotions that may surface. There are things that you can do to reduce your anxiety about how your parents will behave. It doesn’t have to be a time or place for the resurfacing of old conflicts. And, most importantly, you can stay in control. See below four tips to transform a potentially stressful situation into a neutral (or even good!) get-together.

1. Set your expectations right

Disillusionments tend to be a result of unrealistic expectations. Thus, it is important to clearly know what you can expect — from yourself, from your family, and from the event. Most importantly, it’s crucial to understand what NOT TO expect. For example, if you have decades of history with them that accounts for stress, resentment, and criticism, you have no reason to believe that things will be different now. If they’ve never had any empathy for your problems, or if they’re always expecting you to give them expensive gifts, that’s what will happen this time. They are who they are, and probably that’s who they will always be. If you believe that things will be different this time because they’ve aged or because they haven’t seen you for a while, you are in for a disappointment. By hoping for that, you’re also giving the power over your wellbeing away. When you plan your behavior based on what they do or don’t do, you’re putting the outcome of this moment on others. Take the power back! Plan your responses to allow you the best possible experience despite them. It’s always great to hope for the best, but hoping is also the chief cause for disillusionment. So, use caution there. Past behavior tends to be the best predictor of future behavior. Stick to history for a fairer set of hopes regarding the events.

2. Have clear goals

While preparing for the party, make sure that you’re clear on what you want to get out of this gathering. What is most important for you? How do you see yourself navigating the event? If your goal is to go through the holidays in peace, create strategies that will ensure that you stay centered no matter how things happen around you. For this, past behavior is again your best predictive tool. You know how things have been in the past, you know what triggers you, and you know what is your usual reaction to them. Thus, plan around it. Is there a different way to react to that particular behavior? How can you respond differently to your triggers? Why do they affect you this much? How can you minimize the impact they have on you? Coming up with these answers may insulate you against the impact of subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) aggressions, such as tone of voice, mean comments, criticisms, etc. Also, have a plan on how you will respond to those things that are too hurtful to allow you to stay centered. For example, you may consider removing yourself from the situation when a negative comment or topic comes up. You may also change the subject or plainly state that you don’t wish to discuss that. You may even say that you don’t want them to discuss that topic in your presence. Have a plan and define clear boundaries, that you can easily communicate to others, if necessary. That will ensure that you’re the one in control. It will also help you feel less anxious and more confident about the entire event.

3. Avoid controversial topics

There is a reason you have stepped back from this relationship at some moment in time. And I am sure that the fact that you can’t agree on the essential things in life, be it parenting, politics, religion or relationships, is one of them. So why bring them up? Keep the interaction superficial and straightforward. Talk about the latest events, the lives of public people, and the current social-economic situation. But refrain from defending your point of view when you hear someone saying something that you consider wrong or stupid. Why, if you won’t be able to reason with them? Remember that past experiences are your best predictor of future experiences. You won’t change their mind. And even though sometimes getting into passionate philosophical arguments may be exciting, if it adds nothing but stress to the parties involved, it is futile. Within five days or less, a heated discussion on a controversial topic won’t change anything, but your mood. Let it be. Your silence isn’t a statement of your agreement or consent. It is merely your emotional intelligence kicking in when it’s clear that the situation is a waste of your time and energy. Remember that your goal is to keep your holidays as stress-free as possible.

4. Be kind and open

Once you have a plan and you set your expectations to a realistic level, put your best self forward. Offer these people the same kindness that you would extend to strangers. Picture this: suppose that you have no family to spend the holidays with you. A good friend invites you to spend it with them and their family, whom you’ve never met before. How to behave around those people? What to say? What not to say? If you’re like most people, you’ll try to be kind and smiley, without opening yourself up too much. Nobody becomes emotionally vulnerable to strangers the first or second time they meet. The same thing is at play here: kindness with emotional self-protection. The kindness isn’t for them, but for yourself. A truly happy holiday gathering won’t be so if you stay closed up and angry. By doing that you may wind up generating the very events you’re trying to avoid. Thus, try to think of these people as strangers. That may be the only way to offer them your best while caring for yourself.

Each family is different, but very few of them are free of problems. There are always interpersonal conflicts, past unresolved issues, and emotional hurt. When what is at stake is a personality disorder, such as narcissistic or borderline personality disorder, it is even more important to have a plan in place. It’s always okay to refrain from spending what’s supposed to be happy a happy time with people that cause you pain. But if you decide to be with them, make sure to make the best of it.

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