Family and the Holidays

With the holidays swiftly approaching, there is a lot of chatter about holiday plans, including visiting family.  Holiday celebrations with family can be exciting, fun, and joyful, but they can also bring up painful realities about family relationships. And it can be especially difficult to share about holiday plans when those relationships are strained, tense or absent. I often hear clients express guilt and shame about not wanting to visit family members and discomfort about how to tell other people who may not understand.

Limiting relationships with family members is not always the most accepted or celebrated choice.  People may ask probing questions or say things like “but you should be close to them – they are your family!” However, people often do not know the relationship complexities of your family that inform your decision making.  Even if they do, they might be expressing cultural messages about family loyalty, forgiveness, and community inherent in their own families. They may not feel like they have the choice to make their own holiday plans.

Nevertheless, when you are suffering from conflict and fractures in family relationships, the last thing you want to hear is doubt and uncertainty from those around you. Here are some tips on how to talk about alternative holiday plans with friends, colleagues or acquaintances:

1)  You don’t have to share everything. People often make the mistake of sharing all the details about family dysfunction, leaving them feeling vulnerable and scared of judgment. Practice being discerning about who needs to know the specifics. You can prepare for conversations ahead of time by taking an inventory of what is relevant and important.

2)  Come up with a short explanation of your family relationship.  Even if your family dynamic is complex, you can give people an abbreviated version of your experience that feels comfortable to you.  Examples include: “I’m not that close with my family,” “Things are complicated with my family,” “I don’t usually visit family during holidays.”

3)  Get support from close friends, loved ones or professionals. If you are having a hard time about your holiday plans, pick a few people to open up with.  Friends may be relieved to have someone to share their own experiences with and your choices may empower them to make different decisions about how to spend the holidays.

4)  Practice educating others about how they can support you. Think about what you are looking for from the person you are talking to, whether it’s someone to listen, to ask questions, or to just accept your choices. Many people react automatically because they do not know how to show their support – help them learn what you want!

5)  Frame holiday plans in a positive way. You can share what you ARE going to do, rather than what you ARE NOT doing. You can invite positive attention and encouragement by saying “I’m having a friend’s Thanksgiving!” rather than “I’m not seeing my family.” It can also be a great way to avoid uncomfortable or unwanted questions with colleagues or acquaintances.

How you spend your holidays and how you interact with your family is totally up to you. Sharing your experience and holiday plans with someone you trust can be a great way to validate your own decisions.