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Topics > Healthy Outlook > Family and Holiday Stress

Family and Holiday Stress

Published by Contra Costa Times
Posted on Wed, Dec. 21, 2005
By Dr. Nancy Ebbert, Guest Column

Some of our greatest stress during the holidays comes from falling short of our own expectations. Images of happy, harmonious families surround us, and those images reach fever pitch around the holidays.

We are led to believe that other families get together and share great love and joy, in a picture-perfect setting. In fact, few families are really like that, except perhaps on TV.

Our families bring out our deepest passions, not always our happiest. People in families have conflicts, both trivial and major. These conflicts don't go away just because we wish they would.

So what's the best way to handle all this when everyone gets together?

First of all, don't try to control others. You can't make others behave or even get along. But, you may be able to influence things in the direction you want.

For example, you can't make kids behave. But if you schedule the family party at a time when you expect them to be well-rested and in a good mood, you'll improve the chances of good behavior.

Be realistic about your expectations for family behavior. Do you really expect feuding relatives to get along just because of some cookies and eggnog? But, you might leave the alcohol out of the eggnog if you know Uncle Bill always drinks too much and spoils the party.

Think about the conflicts in your family. Some are probably petty grudges and personality conflicts. But some may run deeper. Most of the minor disagreements can be bridged with diplomacy, distraction and good humor.

Bigger conflicts can't be glossed over so easily. Different visiting times is one possible solution. Maybe there are people in your family who really shouldn't be in the same room together.

It's really not a good idea to force these things for the sake of some ideal image of family togetherness. It won't work anyway.

Women can be especially stressed around the holidays. We often feel that we bear the responsibility for shopping, food, decorating and ensuring family harmony. When the party isn't perfect or we can't do it all, women may feel disappointed and guilty, and also resentful of the expectations.

Men are often willing to help but resist taking on women's unrealistic expectations of perfection, which they may see as unnecessary and silly. Perhaps the best advice is to do what you can, ask for help where you can get it, and let go of the rest.

Everyone will have a better time if you're relaxed, cheerful, and getting along with your spouse much more than if the tablecloth is wrinkle-free.

Last of all, many families have members from different cultures, some of whom don't celebrate Christmas. They can feel left out of a holiday season so dominated by Christmas.

Those of other faiths and those who are not religious can embrace Christmas as a secular and largely commercial holiday. If your family has such members, you may want to emphasize this aspect of Christmas when celebrating it with them.

It's important to customize your holiday celebrations to who you and your family are, and to not try to live up to some fantasy image. Doing this will reduce your stress, and help the holidays truly be a time to enjoy.

Dr. Ebbert is chief of adult outpatient psychiatry for Contra Costa Health Services.

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