Being part of a family is one of life’s great joys, but the dynamics of a family unit aren’t always easy – especially during the holidays.
The holiday season can be both a joyful and stressful time. Add to that the fact that many families travel and spend a lot of time together in close quarters, and blowouts are to be expected – they’re especially common between the older and younger generations. The differences and disconnect between the differing age groups can result in a variety of issues, such as miscommunication and friction.
What makes our relationships complicated?
Laura Strydom, a Joburg-based psychological counsellor, believes that while family issues can be vast and particular to each individual unit, there are two main culprits in terms of generational disputes.
‘We’re living in a completely different society to our older family members. Life is busier, most of us are working full time, and even the way we raise our children is different. Today’s parents implement a variety of discipline techniques, and this can often be a source of disagreement and frustration.’
This couldn’t be more true for Cape Townbased mom Jean. ‘I love my dad, but we tend to clash when it comes to how I raise and discipline my children. It has actually reached a point where I no longer want to socialise with him.’ Another issue that Laura believes often comes into play is past hurts and underlying, unresolved issues. ‘As adults, when we return to our family home we become hurt children all over again,’ she explains.
Why is it more challenging during the holidays?
Most of us have high expectations for the holidays. We often have a picture in our minds of how things are supposed to be – the whole family together, laughing and having a great time, but it’s not always realistic.
‘The stress of Christmas and the build-up can be exhausting,’ says Laura.
‘Apart from the high expectations, there are financial pressures and travel stress. We’re also often run down (both physically and mentally) at the end of the year, and when this happens we tend to be more irritable and emotional.’ Jean recounts a particular incident from last Christmas involving her dad and son. ‘During the holidays I usually allow the kids’ routine to slip a little – it’s the holidays after all. ‘Last year all the kids were up late watching a movie when my dad walked into the lounge and demanded they all go to bed straight away. My son said okay but couldn’t they just finish watching the movie. My dad shouted at all of them, and even grabbed my son by the arm to make his point. Needless to say, my son was distraught and I was furious. We had a huge fall out over that and even ended up cutting the trip short to go home.’
How to make a positive change this year
Implementing any of the following can make for a more enjoyable holiday season:
- The first thing to be aware of is the fact that usually, if you want to have a good holiday, now is probably not the best time for a family intervention.
- It’s a good idea to sit down and sort out the logistics, so that everything seems fair and the load is spread: decide things like who will cook on which days, and who will look after the kids,’ advises Laura.
- Be clever and plan ahead as much as you can. ‘When prepping for Christmas lunch, be sure to seat family members who don’t get along away from each other. It’s all about being savvy and, as much as possible, dodging unnecessary strife,’ says Laura.
- ‘However, if your family is particularly difficult and prone to arguments, it could also be helpful to set some basic ground rules ahead of the holidays. A good one is to simply agree to disagree on certain subjects. It’s also worth making an effort not to pick on each other’s sore points.
- Sometimes, there are certain issues that are just never going to be easy to talk about. ‘In that case it’s easier for you to focus on yourself, and what you can and can’t control,’ says Laura. ‘So while you can’t control what others say and do, you can control how you allow it to hurt you and how you react.’
- Decide for yourself what you feel is acceptable and what’s not, and where your boundaries lie. Sometimes going through the various scenarios in your head and playing out how you’ll react can take away some of the anxiety – you’re likely to feel prepared and more secure should the situation even arise,’ says Laura.
- Remember not to take on other people’s issues. ‘When someone makes a nasty comment or is being difficult it often says a lot more about them than you,’ explains Laura. Learning not to take things personally is tricky, but well worth the effort!
- From a physical perspective it’s important to go into the holidays prepared. ‘Remember to look after yourself too,’ says Laura. ‘Get enough sleep, eat healthily – it’ll all make a difference to how you handle tricky situations.’
Even if your family drive you crazy, they’re still your family. ‘Even though my dad’s outlook on my parenting
style upsets me, after the last fight we’ve agreed to disagree on the subject,’ says Jean. Laura adds, ‘It’s important to
focus on the positives and our own attitudes. We can usually have a good time if we pay attention to enjoying
being together. Remember to express your appreciation for various family members and take part in family
activities. And relax – things don’t have to be perfect for everyone to enjoy themselves.’
2 survival tips for dealing with the difficult relative
Every family has at least one ‘difficult’ family member. Laura suggests dealing with them as follows:
- Rate the conflict situation on a scale of mild to severe. If it’s mild, perhaps you can divert their attention or use distraction. It’s about taking back control of the situation.
- If you feel the conflict situation is severe, engage with the person. Stay as calm as possible and use ‘I’ statements when you’re speaking. Take a moment and breathe before saying anything you might regret.