Most families are a group of related people of different ages with a mix of personalities, needs, feelings and expectations. They may be a nuclear family, an extended family, a reconstituted family or a blended family. In any case, they share an identity as family and, as such, consciously and unconsciously have an impact upon each other.
Their lives can be touched by the joy shared by one family member, the excitement of another and the heartache and loss of still another –sometimes all on the same day.
Most would agree that at times of pain and joy, families are the greatest source of support and the greatest source of applause. They can also be the greatest source of stress.
Holidays seem to turn the volume up on all possibilities.
How Can Families Cope with the Holidays?
A suggested goal for coping with the holidays is to foster family bonds and minimize family binds.
The bonds family members feel are not just genetic – they also come from a family’s experience of being a system with a defined boundary, predictable patterns, expectations, assigned roles, explicit and implicit rules, religious beliefs, rituals, ethnic roots etc.
- The holiday means baking and sharing Grandma’s cookies.
- Dad always helps the children hand out the gifts.
- Everyone goes to Church together.
- The family always eats some special food (be it black-eyed peas, pork loin, or fish) on New Year’s Day.
The binds that family members feel can be self-imposed or family imposed. Paradoxically they often result from holding on too rigidly to the very roles, boundaries, rituals, and traditions that family members have associated with identity and connection.
The insistence on adherence to the way it is supposed to be, the way it always was, or the way everyone should behave, is often the source of considerable tension and stress. It changes family bonds into family binds. It is worth questioning:
- Is there really no holiday if we are too exhausted to bake?
- Is it worth demanding that everyone eat the same food at the same time if it means a newly married couple stresses with the demands of competing families?
- If we can’t be at home – can we still share a sense of holiday?
- If Grandma is no longer here – can we share her stories and still hold her close in mind and heart?
Family bonds are often assaulted by disaster or traumatic loss that arrive unbidden – despite plans or holiday seasons.
As such, the bind imposed is one of being trapped in grief and pain. Reaching for the bonds celebrated in family rituals, recipes, and predictable patterns can feel impossible.
When facing such pain and loss in midst of the holidays, it is worth questioning:
- Can there be permission to open the family boundaries to let others, even outsiders, help?
- Can we allow some sense of the holidays to be experienced by the children who have a different context for loss and a need to feel the safety of some familiar rituals?
- Can we smile at something that touches us without feeling guilt or disloyalty in face of loss?
- Can we allow family members to grieve in different ways; to speak or not speak; to pray or to play?
Suggestions for Supporting Family Bonds and Reducing Family Binds:
Embrace the Similarities in Family Members
- It is a pleasure to see young adults enjoying and carrying on the family rituals they choose.
- It is a burden to be forced to adhere to historical patterns.
Accept Differences in Family Members
- There is a great deal to gain in welcoming the new recipe or the idea of a family member to do something different for the holidays.
- It keeps the family history unfolding and tradition- updated.
Welcome New Family Members
- Families gain added strength and resiliency as they welcome in new members- whatever the connections.
- To love family members is to trust their choices and feel the compliment of their wanting to bring someone home.
Risk Changing Roles
- Whether by choice or necessity, families who can be flexible in terms of roles have more resilience in the joyful and painful times.
- The freedom to try out different roles lends itself to different family patterns, problem solving, listening and healing.
Accept Imperfection as Inevitable in Everyone and Every Family
- The safety to be less than perfect in a family invites laughter, relaxation and creativity.
- So what if the food on Christmas is partially frozen and Grandma is feeding the dogs anything they want!!
Be Realistic When Life Makes Celebration Feel Impossible
- The fact that only one family member has the strength to make dinner or order pizza – doesn’t mean that you have failed as a family or there wasn’t a holiday.
- It means you are using family bonds to handle the load during a difficult time. Next year may be different.
Put the Children First – Holidays are Fabrics of Their Memories
- It is not the gift, special dinner or expensive trip that children need on a holiday.
- Children need to feel love and caring by someone who does even one small but special thing to commemorate the day.
- Children need to know there will be more special days.
Put the Holidays in Perspective
It’s not the holidays that make a family – It’s a family that makes a holiday – in the best way they can.