December 14, 2012

Holiday conflict: How to handle it, how to avoid it

Holiday togetherness — Depending on your family’s dynamic, this can be both heartwarming … and tense.

With so much togetherness, the holidays can be like navigating a minefield. It’s no secret that stress can be sobriety’s silent saboteur. But holiday stress is in a league all its own. Don’t let stressful family situations pull the reins when it comes to your recovery.

Here are some skills to exercise in order to not only handle the stress, but to avoid sticky situations.

When it comes down to it, one of the best things you can do is simply tell yourself that there’s no need to overreact to things, says Tina B. Tessina, Ph.d., psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage. The best way to do this is to go into a situation telling yourself you will treat your family—relatives, parents and siblings—as if they were someone else’s relatives.

Tessina explains that it can also be helpful to talk with your close family in advance regarding any possible stress bombs. Is there an uncle who likes his drinks? A grandmother who's getting a little spaced, and says odd things very loudly? A large political difference? A very traditional religious branch of the family who will be upset if certain customs or diets aren't followed? Prepare for them with close loved ones you trust.

This honest conversation can help everyone express their expectations and concerns, says Barb Churchill, who is a life coach, speaker and mentor. This is the best time to fill in those family members on your recovery plan, if you so choose.

For those who take extra precaution to protect their sobriety during those family gatherings, Churchill says you need to create a plan for how long you'll stay at each event. It’s also not a bad idea to bring your own non-alcoholic beverages to ensure you have something in your hand.

“Hosts love to ‘get you a drink,’ which can be awkward,” Churchill explains. Making it even easier, actually being the host can allow you to control the situation, she adds. Home turf is a safe place to be and the decision to have an alcohol-free gathering is easier to make. What’s the best decision for you?

“Prior planning is an essential piece to a truly happy holiday,” Churchill says. “Remember, it doesn't matter how other families do it. What's important is deciding together how your family wants to celebrate this holiday season and how you will support each other.”

Check out Barb Churchill's blog, Fill Your Cup, here.

Tessina outlines five suggestions for going into holiday situations prepared to take on the stress and handle it with care:

  1. Have a clear agreement set with your partner or spouse about the boundaries you're going to set with his/her parents. How will you handle holidays? Does one family like to “drop in” and is that OK?
  2. Learn to give “adult time-outs” to the in-laws if they behave badly or pressure you. (That is, withdraw politely, no personal interchanges and no rudeness.)

  3. If in-laws are difficult, learn to treat them as members of someone else's family with whom you'd not react to obnoxious things, but just politely ignore what they're doing or saying, and maintain a pleasant demeanor. (Churchill adds that while you shouldn’t go looking for trouble, you should also prepare to expect some conflict. Approach the situation with a sense of realism.)

  4. Be a grownup … whether they are or not. If you have to treat them as misbehaving children, so be it—just don't let them drag you into bad behavior of your own.

  5. Find out what your respective families like most, and try to do some of that. If your mother-in-law is a good cook, ask her to teach you some of your spouse's favorite recipes. Sharing informal, productive activities is very bonding, as is allowing others to mentor you.

Sometimes, getting your feelings stepped on or finding your way into an upsetting situation just happens. You didn’t even see it coming. When this happens, Tessina offers these four things to remember:

  • Put it in perspective — will it be important an hour from now? Fifteen minutes from now? Usually, it won't.
  • Self-understanding. If someone or something upsets you, don't exacerbate the problem by getting on your own case for reacting. Reactions are normal it's what we do with them that counts.
  • Rise above. If someone upsets you then give a little prayer of thanks that it wasn't worse. Then, say a blessing for them and you'll feel better.
  • Benefit of the doubt. If someone upset you, acknowledge that you are upset but also consider that the other person is probably more clumsy than intentionally hurtful. The world is full of emotional klutzes who don't realize the impact of their words and actions, and they create more problems for themselves than for you.
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When all else fails, Churchill recommends leaning on friends who support you. They can perk up family holiday disasters. And if you need to solely celebrate with those people, so be it.

“Many a happy holiday has been formed by groups of people who have decided to celebrate with friends instead of family.”


Other articles you might be interested in…

Redefining family

Spirited gatherings 


Love in the time of twitter

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