In a report of research about the holidays released by the American Psychological Association, 44% of Americans list family gatherings as one of the stressful aspects of the holidays. None the less, the same report states that people generally do love the holidays with 53% of those surveyed mentioning that getting together with family and friends as being their favorite part of this time of year; 36% specifically mentioning spending more time with family.
How do those two apparently contradictory things (stress and enjoyment) go together? Percentages can be misleading. Those numbers represent adults as a whole. When broken out by age and gender, we get a different picture. Adult women, who tend to take on more of the responsibilities of “making” the holiday (cleaning, shopping, cooking, etc.) report more stress than men. Men not so much. But men do report worrying about time, money and the commercialism that go with the season. Young adults (those under 30), however, report a decrease in stress. For them (especially those who are college students), going home for the holidays means someone else is doing the lion’s share of creating the Christmas cheer.
What does stress young adults is feeling criticized or not being given enough credit for being the adults they believe themselves to be. The expectations of each generation and how they are played out year after year creates a family’s idea (positive and negative) of what it means to be “home” for the holidays.
You can’t “make” others behave differently. But you can make your home – the home that everyone is coming “home” to – more relaxing by setting reasonable expectations and by doing your best to treat your adult kids as the grown-ups they are.
7 Tips for Stress Reduction
- Set realistic expectations for yourself: The trouble with the romanticized view of the holidays is that it doesn’t take into account that we are layering a huge number of tasks on what may already be a stressful life. If you have a demanding job; if you are a caregiver for an elderly or disabled family member; if you have health or financial issues of your own, you can’t expect yourself to take on the whole responsibility to make your home and family gathering look like a Christmas card. Model that it is the gathering of the family, not the décor or the meal, that makes Christmas special..
- Set realistic expectations for everyone else: Young adults sometimes forget that their parents are getting older and maybe frailer. They need to be reminded in a way that doesn’t provoke guilt but does reflect reality. One way to do this is to ask for help. Request help with doing things you used to do solo, like setting up the tree or cooking special holiday dishes. Use humor to get them off the couch and into the kitchen when it’s time for cooking or clean-up. It’s probably too late for this year, but do consider whether the time has come to hand off the family celebration to another family member next year. It may be getting too much for you. Parents of young kids might just as soon have you all come to them rather than pack up kids for a trip to their grandparents’ on Christmas Day. Do talk it over.
- Open your hearts to the people your adult children love: This is the most common complaint I get from young adults — that Mom or Dad doesn’t like their romantic choice and they feel caught between the love of their parents and the love of their life. Be curious rather than judgmental about the partner your adult child brings “home” for Christmas. Even if you heartily disapprove, nothing but pain will be gained if you say so. Your kid needs to figure out for her/ himself whether the relationship is a positive one.
- Don’t offer advice that isn’t asked for: It’s tempting. An important part of your role during your children’s childhoods was to offer guidance, advice, and even criticisms. But when adult children share their news, they are usually looking for affirmation for their choices, not advice. Bite your tongue. Just listen. If they do ask for advice, keep it minimal and with a generous dose of support for their ability to solve problems. If they don’t ask for it, say only that you know they will make the best decision for themselves.
- Don’t “parent” your grandchildren: Like giving advice, disciplining grandkids is fraught with potential for hard feelings. Adult kids need to figure out for themselves how to parent their children. Sometimes adult kids even (usually unconsciously) are parenting in a way to show how they can do it better than their parents did. Resist the temptation to advise the parent or discipline the children. Allow yourself the pleasure of not being responsible for civilizing the next generation and just enjoy them. Only get involved if there is real danger to people or possessions. In that case, be kind but firm in telling the parents that they need to intervene. Take yourself off to another room.
- Limit alcohol: If alcohol and family events are not a good mix for your family, take charge. Don’t let your desire to make peace make you into an enabler. If there is a history of people getting out of control with drinking, let everyone know ahead of time that you won’t let alcohol ruin yet another Christmas so they should plan to do that kind of celebrating elsewhere.
- Have an “escape” plan: Despite your best laid plans, there may be times during your adult children’s visit when the conversation becomes difficult, the grandkids get too rambunctious for your taste, someone drinks too much or people get on your or each other’s nerves. Just because other people are stressing out doesn’t mean you have to join the stress party. Plead that you need a nap or a walk. Get busy in the kitchen. Take the grandkids or grand-dogs out to play.
There’s a reason that so many songs celebrate going home for the holidays. When it goes well, even just reasonably well, the gathering together of family is an affirmation of love and belonging that warms the family heart and keeps it beating.
Happy Holidays 2016, Everyone.