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Balancing family holiday expectations

One of the greatest sources of stress over holidays, according to my clients, is trying to keep extended family members happy. No matter the holiday, it falls on one specific day. Now that your children have their own children and two (or, more and more commonly, three or four) sets of in-laws, planning visits can be a real frustration.

If everyone wanted you to be with them on Christmas Day, that would often be impossible. Many parents want Christmas morning at home with their children. If grandparents become hurt or impose guilt trips if things don’t go their way, that adds a whole other level of distress.

It’s common for grandparents to want to recreate the same kind of Christmas they had when their adult children lived at home. Sometimes they forget what it is like for their children, who have additional obligations now.

I have always believed that getting family together is more important than the day on which it happens. Christmas get-togethers can happen on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or Boxing Day. 

Christmas is often a time when grown children get a little time off work and so choose to travel. Sometimes, they have family obligations in another province or country. My grandchildren live away from us. Sometimes we have Christmas with one family early in December; one year, another one of my children came with their family well into January. Another daughter lives here. Some years I have three Christmases!

If we release our attachment to (and expectation that) our children should be obliged to do what we want them to, the season will be much happier. They do not need the stress of feeling that someone will be hurt or mad if they cannot meet the wishes of their parents.

The wisest approach, in my opinion, is to let our adult children let us know when they want to celebrate with us and to accept that without question. Yes, it can hurt if they always seem to put their in-laws first. They have their reasons for planning the way they do, and we need to accept that. To get upset or pout about this is hard on you and hard on them. Making them feel guilty is a good way to ruin Christmas.

Christmas can be, for some, a terrible time. Old family issues arise and there can be conflict. If one of the parents is an alcoholic, for example, adult children may not want to be around that. They may not want their children exposed to it. If we do not have a good relationship with a child, they may not be eager to get together. The idea that we should just drop everything and have a happy celebration is not always easy to do. Someone can say or do something – or many things – that are triggers for another.

If you’re worried about hurting someone’s feelings due to your choices, you must learn to manage that too. We are not responsible for everyone’s feelings. Explain that you must consider the needs of many other people in dividing your time, so everyone is not going to get their first choice.

The biggest expectation we need to manage is the idea that Christmas must be perfect. All of the advertising and Christmas specials show happy families having a wonderful time. These create unrealistic ideas, setting standards that are impossibly high.

When reality falls short, we can end up feeling sad and disappointed. The same is true when we have expectations about Christmas gifts – if we measure a person’s level of caring with the value of the gift, we set ourselves up for pain. If you know your partner or children are not into gift giving with the same level of care that you show, then put some gifts under the tree for yourself! I once had a partner like that. Once I realized I would likely get another kitchen gadget for Christmas, I began selecting gifts for myself as I did Christmas shopping. Perhaps it was a good book, an item of clothing, and/or a wonderful hand cream. I always felt happy with my gifts! (And, of course, they all came from Santa). 

If you know you will be alone on a day you hoped to be with family, you have a choice. You can dread that day and then feel sad and disappointed or lonely all day, or you can plan a special day for yourself. You might dig into a good book, go for a walk in the sunshine, make arrangements with friends or plan your favorite meal. 

Remember, it’s just one day. If you don’t build it up with expectations, you won’t be let down.

Gwen is an author and award-winning psychologist. To obtain books, CDs or MP3s, visit Follow GwenRandallYoung on Facebook for inspiration.


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