How to Handle Family Stress: You Can’t Change Your Family, But You Can Change Your Perspective.
With Thanksgiving and other holidays on the horizon, family tensions can be inevitable–especially during COVID, an upcoming election, and the general overwhelm of 2020. You can see my previous article on tips to handle family stress here.
But the premise is that we cannot control our family members, topics of conversation or tension, but we can control what we say/don’t say, do/don’t do, and our perspective of them or the situation.
It can be very helpful to shift our perspective to get curious instead of critical to help ease anxiety around family dynamics and boundaries.
Check out some tips from a therapist on how to handle family stress and have a less anxious Thanksgiving or holiday with family from Dr.Kathleen Smith’s suggestions on Psychology Today:
Observing your family with curiosity can help you calm down.–Dr.Kathleen Smith from Psychology Today
When an entire family is gathered for Thanksgiving, it’s easy to go on the defensive. Who’s going to ask intrusive questions? Who’s going to bring up politics and make everyone tense? Who’s going to drink a little too much or offer unsolicited advice?
I often ask my therapy clients to consider how they can approach family gatherings with curiosity instead of anxiety—to see these events as laboratories instead of haunted houses. For many people, it’s a rare opportunity to see how a family functions on a larger scale. You cram everyone together, pump them full of carbs, and watch the family do what it does best—try hard to manage the anxiety in the room.
Families all employ a number of fairly predictable strategies to calm things down. And the less surprised you are by them, the less people will seem like villains out to get you. Like you, they’re simply reacting to the tension of togetherness with the behaviors that feel the most comfortable.
What Anxiety Looks at Thanksgiving or Other Family Gatherings:
- Turning on TV on to avoid conversation
- Using a spouse or sibling as a buffer
- Becoming super helpful to avoid conversation
- Offering unsolicited advice
- Arriving late or leaving early
- Gossiping about somebody who’s not present
- Sticking to superficial conversation
- Playing with kids to avoid grown-up conversation
- Pretending to be incompetent so they don’t have to help
- Using alcohol to calm down
- Asking lots of questions so no one can ask them one
- Changing the subject when politics or religion are discussed
- Looking at their phone to pass the time
- Agreeing with someone just to avoid conflict
- Anxiously monitoring whether people like their food
- Only hanging around people they know the best
- Trying to keep someone from embarrassing them
- Taking sides in an argument with the person they prefer
- Lying about themselves to avoid conflict
- Not helping because someone else will do it
- Avoiding people they find awkward
- Texting their friends to complain
- Pretending to use the bathroom to escape
- Only talking about their kid and not themselves
Coping Strategies to Handle Family Stress
These are just a few of the behaviors we employ to calm down the room. Often they work pretty well. But what is the cost of always hiding in the bathroom? Of talking exclusively to your favorite uncle? Of not being honest about what you believe or what’s important to you? You might miss out on:
- Developing stronger one-to-one relationships
- Learning to regulate your own anxiety
- Understanding how your family functions
- Being a resource to other family members
When you see people’s behaviors as anxiety-managing strategies instead of personal attacks, it’s a little bit easier to access your own maturity. You can begin to turn off your anxious autopilot, and try to be the kind of person you want to be around your family. You won’t have to turn on the TV or wash every dish to escape and survive. And when you calm down, the whole family calms down a little too.
So rather than be surprised by your family this Thanksgiving, start to think about what you should expect and how you’d like to respond. Here are some questions you could ask yourself before the next family gathering:
- When I am feeling anxious, what do I do/don’t do or say/don’t say?
- What predictable behaviours should I expect from family members? How can I prepare for this beforehand in a calm demeanour?
- What would the most mature version of myself do in response to these behaviours? All I control is myself; live above approach.
Many people seek counselling to deal with family stress, boundaries, and to improve relationships. We’d love to be a support to you!