Young woman looking up at dining table

For these six tips to improve holiday harmony, we are grateful

Chances are you don’t really want your family’s Thanksgiving to look like that iconic Normal Rockwell painting. It’s lovely. But seriously, for people sitting down to plain celery, ice water and what is probably an overdone bird, those folks are way too chipper.

But Americans do attach a lot of hopeful expectations to Thanksgiving, along with the rest of the winter holidays the big turkey day heralds. That can set everyone up for disappointment and stress, say faculty and alumni family therapists from Chapman University’s Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) program in the Crean College of Health and Behavioral Sciences.

woman smiling

Susan Jester

But here’s something to be, well, grateful about. They also say it’s possible to create happier and calmer family get-togethers by approaching them with a realistic mindset, a few strategies and reasonable goals.

It’s worth the effort, says Susan Jester, associate director of Chapman’s Frances Smith Center for Individual and Family Therapy, and a marriage and family therapist in private practice.

“The importance of family rituals has never been so important as a way to remember what is really important, and what is not so important,” Jester says.

And despite being scattered around the country nowadays, families evolved by spending time together, and those connections are an important part of our identity, says
David Pincus
, Ph.D., associate professor at Crean College and a family therapist in private practice.

“These gatherings can be rejuvenating, because if our family is a good base, we get a reminder of who we are and where we come from. That can be nice,” he says.

To get started on all that, Chapman experts offer these six tips.

Put on your grown-up hat

Hate that feeling of being treated like a child again at family gatherings? Welcome to the club, Pincus says. It’s one of the most common sources of resentment among families. That makes it great material for holiday movies, but not so jolly in real life.

One solution he offers is to give yourself a talk before you get together with family so you don’t end up feeling like you’re back at the children’s table. List the values and traits that make you, you – “I have kids. I have a career.” No, this is not like that regular skit on
Saturday Night Live
with the motivational speaker who indulges himself in gushy “Doggone it, people like me!” chatter. Rather, it’s a technique that helps people anchor themselves so they don’t get pulled into those “force fields” that can have them playing the child again, Pincus says.

man smiling

David Pincus

Set workable goals

Aim for what might be described as a nice enough day. Going into these occasions thinking that “My goal is to get my parents to finally recognize how awesome I am” is almost sure to produce disappointment, Pincus says. Try something more attainable that will still make the day special – like making a point to spend time with the nieces and nephews who are growing up so fast.

Be selective

“Think about your family’s traditions. What are the ones that you like, as well as the ones you dislike or that can be problematic. Devise a strategy to deal with those that are not enjoyable,” Jester says. Sometimes just changing arrival and departure times, or veering to a quiet place to hang out with the oldest or youngest family members, is enough, she says.

Keep an open mind

woman smiling

Jennifer Pentz

Just as high expectations can go unmet, assuming the worst will happen isn’t helpful, either. It can sabotage you into sparking a self-fulfilling scenario, says Jennifer Pentz (MFA ’12), a marriage and family counselor in private practice and the lead therapist at the CSP Children’s Crisis Residential Program in Laguna Beach.

Be mindful of keeping a positive attitude and “taking things as they come,” she says. If uncomfortable or painful topics arise, try to steer things back to the present, but consider revisiting them with your loved one at another time. “Holiday gatherings are not the time to hash out that kind of stuff,” she says.

Be ready to hit the road gracefully

If you know you’re going into a potentially stressful situation, decide ahead of time how long want to stay “so you don’t set yourself up for a situation where you’re going to get overwhelmed, or where you’re going to get resentful.” This strategy works well when a spouse or friend is clued into the plan, Pentz says.

And put down the cell phone

“Turn off your electronic devices in order to be physically and emotionally present with others. This will also help you to be self-aware, so that if old family dynamics rear their ugly head, you can access strategies you have created before to manage them, or exit gracefully.”

The holidays can exacerbate family violence and substance abuse, too. Read how Chapman clinics are helping families cope.

Dawn Bonker

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