Did you ever wish that you could skip the holiday season just to avoid all the family tension? Yeah, me neither (in case my family is reading this). Well, you’re not alone. A lot of research has been done about the family stress we experience during the holidays. It’s not that we don’t love our kin, it’s just that they know how to get under our skin better than anyone.
And lest you think that my life is perfect, we have one family member who everyone loves but who can push the limits of acceptable behavior. One minute, she’s the life of the party and the next minute, she’s complaining about the food or that there’s not enough to drink. And no matter how much feedback we give her, the situation never really improves.
Does this sound familiar? Perhaps for you, it’s an uncle or a distant cousin. Or maybe it’s a parent or a child. When we come together for so-called celebrations, let’s be honest, we sometimes need a vacation just to get a break from the holiday.
In an ideal world, we could choose our family rather than being born into it. Perhaps there will be a day in the future when an in-utero multiple choice quiz allows a newborn to pick like-minded parents. It would be a challenge to create since in-utero children aren’t that good at multiple choice quizzes. But if it was possible, a baby might be born and then tell the parents that they weren’t her first choice. That instead, she had chosen the Smiths down the road. But as I think about this, I wonder if this type of quiz would actually solve the problem. Probably not, because the Smiths might turn out to be just as messed up.
You see, I think one of the reasons we have issues with our family is not because we’re unlike-minded. It’s because we are so like-minded. Think about it. The issue we usually most complain about is also the issue that drives us nuts. For instance, I love to control certain things in my life. Yet I am very critical of people who love to control certain things in their lives. It’s as if the very essence of who I am irritates me. Now there’s a conundrum—I’m one of the relatives that cause other family members stress. Go figure.
On the other hand, we also have trouble with people who are not like us. As an example, most families include both conservatives and liberals, and when they get together, they don’t typically see eye-to-eye. Instead, they want an eye-for-an-eye, a tit for tat, and a quid quo pro. By the way, I don’t exactly know what a “tit for tat” is but I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with breasts or tattoos.
So, essentially, during the holidays, we are thrust into an environment where the people who are similar irritate us and the people who are different drive us crazy. It’s a difficult dilemma and whether we like it or not, we’re stuck with it. And quite honestly, there are good and bad sides to it all. The good side is that family will help you move a couch or give you a ride when your car breaks down. The bad side is that they’re also the people who will berate you all the way to the repair shop because you didn’t attend to the check engine light, and on top of that, you didn’t vote for the right person in the last election.
Knowing all of this, what do we do to make the most of the holidays without letting the holidays get the best of us? Allow me to share a few ideas of what we do with our “difficult” relative and maybe through our experience, you’ll get some help with your own situation. But as a disclaimer, I am not a family therapist nor a relationship columnist. Anything offered here is simply my opinion and should not be taken as professional advice.
Here are some suggestions:
Create boundaries. Whenever your loved one starts to get out of hand, I’ve found it helpful to set some boundaries that point out unacceptable behavior. If, for instance, someone starts to go off the rails about military spending or universal healthcare, I’ve found that it’s effective to say, in a firm but loving voice, “No” or “Bad Girl.” These simple directives create boundaries that may steer your family member back the next time they want to wander down a controversial path.
Reward good behavior. As the old saying goes, you attract more bees with honey than you do with vinegar. I think this is true with most behavior. Research has shown that rewards are typically more powerful than punishments, especially for those who tend to react poorly to criticism or negative feedback. So, when a family member does something acceptable, make sure you reward the behavior. Offer a compliment such as “Nice” or “Good girl.” Even better, you can provide a treat like a food item or a toy. By rewarding the good behavior, you’re encouraging it to occur again.
Use time out. When our children were young, time out was a very effective shaping tool. The key was that there was nothing fun in their rooms. So, time out was really boring and was not something they enjoyed. While it falls into the category of a negative feedback system, it does allow the offending party time to think about their behavior. Often, we use a shower stall or a large box for our difficult relative to spend a few minutes away from others. This seems to work quite well.
This is the season for family. And not all family members get along. Nonetheless, I hope that these tips will help you sail through the holidays with as little stress as possible. And while it’s probably not appropriate to reveal the name of our problematic relative, I don’t think it would be helpful to keep her identity anonymous. So, for the sake of transparency and valuable feedback, our challenging family member is our dog, Piper. We love her but she can be a royal pain in the…well…you know.
Happy holidays. Woof.