By Dr. Charlene Berquist and Heather Blades, of the Center for Dispute Resolution at Missouri State University
Going home for the holidays is a chance to relax, reconnect with family, and celebrate together. But for many students, this fun and festive time is also fraught with the potential for awkward, uncomfortable, and even upsetting interactions with loved ones. But fear not! The tips below will help you mentally prepare so you can make the most of your break time with family. Additionally, they will equip you with strategies to manage any challenging conversations or conflicts that may arise as you spend quality time with your nearest and dearest.
Before you leave for break:
- Be grateful. Take time to think deliberately about all you have to be thankful for. Make a list of each family member you’ll spend time with and write down 1-2 things you appreciate about each person. Gratitude has a positive impact on your emotional health, reduces stress, and will create a different mindset and context for your family holiday. By being mindful of what you like and appreciate about each person you are more likely to “see” those things in your interactions with them.
- Prepare yourself. Be prepared for some conflict, and approach time with family with a sense of realism. Prepare yourself to stay neutral and avoid taking comments personally. You know who in your family may rub you the wrong way or try to start an argument. Consider making a plan in advance for how you will handle these interactions so you aren’t reacting out of stress or anger in the moment.
- Communicate in advance. Let your family know about your plans and expectations for how you will spend your time. For example, your mom may assume you’ll want to spend ALL your time with her, while you plan to visit other friends during your time off. Letting her know early what your plans are will help avoid hurt feelings and enable you to set expectations and establish boundaries in advance of your visit.
- Be realistic about change. As families grow and time passes, traditions and rituals often change. Accept that you may have to let some go, and put your energy into finding new ways to celebrate together that fit with your and your family’s life circumstances.
While you are at home:
- Keep conversations neutral. Avoid discussing divisive and personal issues, like religion or politics, or when you will get married or graduate (if these are sensitive issues), or other issues that tend to cause conflict. If a family member tries to start a conversation that will probably become an argument, change the subject or find a reason to leave the room. Remember – it takes two to tango! By adjusting your response to the other person, you can alter the dynamic of the relationship.
- Choose not to respond. If you are feeling attacked or criticized by something a family member says to you, ask yourself “Do I NEED to respond?” When we respond out of anger or defensiveness, the situation is likely to escalate. Surprisingly often we can end the drama simply by not responding, or by saying “OK” and moving on. No response IS a response, and a powerful one. So, if your great-aunt Mabel comments on how she didn’t realize the “Freshman 15” was a real thing, consider simply smiling and walking away, rather than sharing that it is better than the “Quarantine 19” she put on.
- Accept the reality of who people really are. If you are interacting with difficult family members, don’t attempt to change them. You will only get into a power struggle that causes defensiveness and invites criticism. Remember, there is only one person you can control or change: yourself! This can feel frustrating, but when we display and model positive behaviors, others are more likely to follow our lead. And even if their negative behaviors continue, at least you can look back on your choices and feel proud that you acted calmly and maturely.
- Be curious. Sharing holidays with family who hold different values and beliefs can be stressful! If you decide to engage in discussions about topics on which you disagree, instead of trying to defend your point of view or persuade the other person to your way of thinking, approach your family members with curiosity. Actively listen and seek to understand their point of view. Being genuinely curious about their beliefs, values, hopes, and fears helps to open up a deeper dialogue. When you get to the core of what’s important to your family member, it often allows a richer understanding that may not have seemed possible had you chosen to “debate” them.
- Know your limits. It is OK to limit the time you spend around family. Set up realistic limits and stick to them. Plan time or activities that allow you to take care of yourself – this may mean taking a walk, enjoying a good book for an hour, listening to a podcast, soaking in a warm bath, or other activities that take you away from the holiday stress and help you recharge. In the words of Audre Lorde, “Self care is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation.”
- Forget about perfection. A wise person once said, “The key to happiness is low expectations.” Too often we strive for perfection and set ourselves up for failure. Instead of focusing on what isn’t perfect about your holiday, make a point to recognize everything you have to appreciate.
- Help others feel recognized and appreciated. Sometimes in our own stress we forget that the holidays are stressful for others as well. Help your family members feel more relaxed, loved, and valued by making a point to tell them something you appreciate about them, or by clearly recognizing something they have done well over the past year. We too often assume others know what we are thinking or how we feel about them. Just a few words of love, support, appreciation, or encouragement can mean a lot to our loved ones.
We hope these tips help you as you prepare for holiday break! For more information or help with specific conflict situations, check out the Center for Dispute Resolution website at www.missouristate.edu/cdr/, call us at 417-836-8831, or email CDR@MissouriState.edu.