Ahhh, it’s that time of the year again. The holiday traditions take us home for the holidays to reunite with parents, siblings, cousins and old friends. Often this experience is joyous and as it should be, a time to appreciate one another, reminisce about the past and enjoy food, wine, gifts and conversation.
But sometimes when there is unspoken and unresolved tension within a family, returning home for the holidays does not bring the joy that the holidays anticipate.
One of my holiday favorites is the movie, “Home for the Holidays,” starring the late, great Charles Durning, Anne Bancroft, Holly Hunter and Robert Downey, Jr. If you haven’t seen this movie, rent it.
It gives humor and levity to family holiday tension and also addresses the unfortunate common family system’s mistake of not speaking directly and lovingly to one another, in order to move to a place of mutual acceptance and understanding.
If there is a part of you that feels a little bit of “dread” in returning home for the holidays, my advice to you is the following:
• Do some pre-holiday self reflection. Identify what is at the root of the “dread.” Take some time to figure out and understand, with or without the help of a therapist, what specifically you are worried about or not looking forward to by visiting your family.
Is it that you will be criticized? Is it that you do not feel accepted and that you won’t feel comfortable being your authentic self? Is it that you are not happy with yourself or proud of yourself at this time in your life? Is it that your independent life is much more enjoyable than your family life?
• Change the communication culture within your family. Do something about the tension. You can take the steps to change the culture of your family by instilling a new communication technique of direct and loving communication. If you feel that your mother tells you how to raise your kids or your father criticizes you, then address it in a constructive way.
At a time other than the heat of the moment and privately, take your family member aside and ask if you can talk about something that has been bothering you.
Begin the conversation with affirmation of what you appreciate about this family member and request a new dynamic between the two of you. Something like, “Mom, I know you care about the kids and they love their grandmother, but I need for you to not correct my parenting. I have made decisions about my parenting style and I am going to ask that you respect that. Do you think you can do that? I know we may never agree on some of these things and I am hoping that is OK.”
Or, “Dad, you have done so much for our family and I really appreciate it and I am so proud of you and your service in the military, but sometimes when you ask me questions about my job, I feel that you are being critical of me. I want to look forward to coming home and seeing you and mom and sometimes I don’t because I don’t want to be criticized. You may not mean to be critical, but maybe it would be better if we don’t talk about my job and we talk about the kids and hobbies and other things we enjoy sharing. Is that OK?”
It can be difficult to make these changes and family members aren’t always immediately receptive, but if you hold firm, they usually will come around.
• Make strides in becoming the person you will be proud of. Look at the family reunion as a motivating factor. If you are feeling uncomfortable about being judged by your family because of how they perceive you, but you are happy with yourself, then it is about asserting yourself and asking for their acceptance. But if you are not happy with yourself and need to make changes and want to make changes, use the family visit date as a motivator and set some short-term goals.
Maybe you can’t lose 40 pounds it three weeks, but you can lose 5 pounds and be on your way. Or maybe you just lost your job, but you can start looking for a new one and discuss your progress. Open up to your family about your challenges and ask for their support. Ask that they don’t judge you.
• Strive for a feeling of mutual acceptance. Be a leader. You can be the one in the family that asks for and offers acceptance. Try to understand a family member’s decisions by listening to their perspective and trying to be open to another way of thinking about things. The more encouragement and praise and positive feedback you give, the more he or she will open up, so that you can understand.
There is more than one way to live life. You get to make decisions for yourself and so does your family member. That is the great thing about adulthood. Stay away from topics where you don’t agree and focus on the mutual interests where each can offer support.
Address an incident that may have happened in the past and agree to move forward and request any changes in the new relationship, such as “I don’t loan money to family anymore. It was a decision I had to make” or “I know you are upset that John and I didn’t include you in our business, but I hope that you accept our reasons even if you see it differently.”
Use this time of year to address the past and move forward with love and acceptance and a loving approach to resolution and change.
• Becky Johnston’s, MA, MBA, LPC, therapy and mediation practice is located in Ahwatukee. She specializes in family counseling, couples counseling, divorce mediation and dating coaching. Reach her at (480) 245-6080 or firstname.lastname@example.org.