Family Tensions During the Holidays

Contributor: Dr. Carla Garber

We love our families. We wouldn’t know what to do without them. Whether we live at home; are returning from college; or are planning to visit in-laws – the holidays are a time ripe for family tension, because everyone is stretched “a little thin”.

It can – and does – happen to everyone. See if you recognize yourself in any of these possible scenarios.

Mattie loves the holidays, but she dreads the big focus on huge holiday meals. And, if Grandma says anything about her weight or eating, she thinks she may scream!

Stories of Tension

When he goes home from college, Derek (recovering from Bulimia) knows it is going to be very challenging, with large holiday meals at both divorced parents’ houses. Not only that, but as Derek says, he also has FOMO (fear of missing out) around seeing some old high school friends!

Mom has already warned him that curfew will be enforced. So, Derek is very angry that Mom doesn’t seem to take his independence into account.

Perfectionist Behaviors Running in the Family

Sarah is always nervous when her perfectionist Mom asks her to cook. This year, Mom asked her to make the gravy for the holiday meal. When Sarah finished and put it in a serving ladle, her Mom scowled, “I meant white gravy, not brown gravy. I should have asked your sister to do it! Now, I’ll just have to do it over.”

Kat (a recovering Anorexic) often feels like an outsider around her husband’s family. She’s often caught off guard with their different traditions and preferences, like attending midnight mass and opening one gift each on Christmas Eve.

This year, when her father-in–law, opened the tie she carefully chose for him, he said “Well that’s nice, but I don’t wear ties anymore”. Her husband gave her a look like, “You should have known that, Kat”.

Torn Between Family Members’ Expectations

Sometimes you may feel torn between blended families, in-laws, grandparents, friends, boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s families. If you were a turkey wishbone, you might break in two.

Not only do people turn to food on holidays, some people drink a little (or a lot) too much. Of course, alcohol makes people more uninhibited. By the third drink, Uncle Blake may start asking why you’re not married yet or why you have gained a little weight.

Your adult siblings, whom you normally enjoy, can become childlike and competitive – especially if everyone is tired or overwhelmed. You could easily find yourselves competing for attention or praise, like you might have done when you were children.

Tips to Cope with Family Tension

airport-351472_640Of course, different family members may have different priorities. Your aunt and uncle want their kids to have a good time, but you can’t stand their constant video game noise.

Your brother’s wife is on a diet and it seems she can’t eat anything that’s prepared. And the list goes on…and on…and on.

Following are some tips to make things easier. Have you ever heard the joke about how fish and family are alike?

The punch line is “After three days, they both get old.” While that may be a bit harsh, I say you can remember my suggestions with the letters CARP – like the fish.

To reduce tensions with your family during holiday visits, be:

C – Communicative.

Don’t rely on eating disorder habits to reduce anxiety or tension. We know it doesn’t work. It only makes us feel worse. Communicate with family, friends and partners. Here are examples. “Mom and Dad, it would really help if nobody said anything about my weight or my eating while I’m there. Could you help me change the subject if someone says anything?”

Or “Hey, I can’t think what to get your Dad for Christmas. Do you know if he still wears ties?” Or ”Mom, do you mean the brown gravy that we put on mash potatoes or the white gravy that Grandma likes?”

And, you can have some “who, what, when, where and how” questions ready in order to change the subject, when it someone treads on shaky ground.

A – Assertive.

Assert your needs and preferences in advance – especially if there may be misunderstandings. You can be assertive without being unkind. “Dad, after eating dinner at Mom’s on Christmas Day, I can come over to your house in the evening for desert.”

Or “Sweetheart, since I don’t know your parents as well as you do, you need to give me some ideas on what they may like”. Or even, “Next year, I would like for you to take care of getting gifts for your parents”.

R – Realistic.

Have realistic expectations. If your Dad usually wants to ask you about your grades over winter break, be prepared. If Mom says, “My house, my rules” every year, she will probably say the same this year. Remember, it’s temporary. You can go back to your life without curfews, soon.

P –Patient.

As you know, people – not food – should be the focus of the holiday. Try to be patient, even with those who believe the food is the most critical element. Twelve Step recovery suggests focusing on others; being of service; and seeing things from others’ perspectives.

Ask yourself, “Will this matter, a year from now, in the grand scheme of things?” Whether your Mom likes your shoes or not is really incidental. So, she doesn’t like them? Whatever.

Remember that very few family members are intentionally trying to make you uncomfortable. Generally people wish the best for their families at the holidays. They may not be at their best because they are feeling fatigued, insecure, jealous or irritated.

A Simple Tip

fantasy-466759_640And finally, would you like a simple tip that many people have found to be a lifesaver?

Take walking shoes! If things get tense; if food prep is overwhelming, if your sister’s boyfriend is driving you crazy – tell everyone you’ll be back in a bit.

Gently and slowly walk a few houses down the street while breathing deeply and reminding yourself “I am safe. I am enough. And this too shall pass!”

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What is your experience with finding peace within your family gatherings during the holidays?

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on December 5th, 2014
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