Not a Norman Rockwell Family? How to Make the Holidays Better

Perfectly set dinner table

We have this idea that family holidays should look like a Norman Rockwell painting: everyone scrubbed and smiling. You may even think that most families are really like that. Some families are closer to that fantasy idea than others, but I assure you that every family’s got at least some rough patches, and many families have a lot of them.

Alas, there’s no secret elixir to add to the sweet potatoes that’ll curb Aunt Betsy’s critical tongue, no magical ingredient you can put in the stuffing to keep Cousin Andy from getting drunk. But there are things you can do to make your family holidays go more smoothly.

Let go of perfection. If it matters a lot to you that the table is gorgeous or the meal goes perfectly, you’re setting yourself up for frustration. For years I worked hard to get all the food served hot at the same time because I’m sort of a foodie and I like it that way. I finally, finally realized that although hot food is a great goal, it isn’t the be all and end all. When I’m in the kitchen on a holiday I still try to get everything hot at once, but I’m much less focused on that—which makes me more relaxed and the whole day more pleasant (for me and for those around me).

Anticipate drama—even predict it. Often when I talk with clients about their difficult families, they’re very clear about who’s likely to create what kind of problem: the pair that’ll get into an angry political argument, the one who sulks if she doesn’t get her way, someone else who delights in provoking people with stories of childhood offenses or embarrassments. Whatever is irksome in your family, you can pretty much anticipate it, right? That’s a tool for not letting it get to you.

Here’s how it works. Talk before the holiday with your significant other (or whomever you’d usually complain to about the drama). Then speculate about how it’s going to play out this year. Make predictions: How loud will things get? When will the drama start? Who’ll get sucked in this time? Who’ll react how to what’s going on? Then, when you’re in the midst of the holiday, notice what’s happening. How accurate were your predictions? Are people actually behaving better than you expected? Or is the drama exactly as you guessed? Either way, you’ll be observing what’s going on rather than reacting to it. The craziness may not change, but it’ll likely be much less upsetting.

Get curious about what triggers you. Families are great at pushing our buttons. Old unresolved things (hurts, competition, etc.) come up all the time when we get together. When something upsets you, do you know exactly why it does? You probably know what the other person did that bugs you—but do you know what that touches in you? What’s the old hurt or vulnerability? What makes that particular behavior so frustrating or painful?

If possible, tune into yourself during the holiday itself and notice what’s going on inside you. If uncomfortable feelings appear, notice them. See what it feels like to notice them and not act on them the way you usually do. Just stay, breathe, and notice. This helps you react less, so you’re not throwing gasoline on the emotional fire.

After the holiday, review what happened and what it triggered in you. Talk with a trusted friend about your thoughts and feelings. What can you learn from family interactions that will help you grow and heal from old wounds that may be holding you back?

Create a sanity plan. If your family is local, so spending the holiday together means only a few hours, that’s one thing. But if you travel a long way and spend several days, you may find yourself overwhelmed and irritable. Not only is that no fun, it can also make you part of the problem.

Ahead of time, give some thought to your personal style and needs (and those of your partner and kids, if applicable). Are you an extrovert who wants to fit in as much family contact as you can (at least with some relatives)? Are you more of an introvert who needs downtime to recover from too much activity? Build that in. You might take a walk or a nap. You might stay at a hotel rather than at the house. You might schedule a lunch date with an old friend if that’d be relaxing. You might propose watching a movie if that’s calmer than family squabbles. Or propose playing dodgeball or kickball outside—anything to change things up. If one person in your part of the family (your SO, say) needs more downtime than others, that’s fine. You don’t have to spend every minute of the holiday as a unit.

Stop trying to change people. So much family conflict is about trying to change other people. We want them to be more loving, less melodramatic, more supportive, less drunk, calmer, warmer, whatever. We want them to give us the praise, affection, respect, attention, space or whatever we’ve been wanting since we were little. It is completely understandable to want this. But if you haven’t gotten it by now, your family member(s) may not be capable of it.

Then what? Understand that they are doing their best, and it still may not be what you need. Do your best to accept your flawed family members for who they are, and love them anyway.

Look for the good. Sometimes, relatives really have changed for the better; you just have to stop assuming “same old” in order to notice that. Even if they haven’t changed, there may be good things about them that you haven’t been paying much attention to because you’ve been so focused on what irritates you.

Before the holiday, or during it, start to list good things about every relative. Note every positive adjective that fits each person, including things like these: kind, responsible, interesting, funny, affectionate, energetic, welcoming, reliable, intelligent, friendly, well-meaning, curious, hardworking, well informed, entertaining, caring, passionate, thought-provoking, generous, cheerful, thoughtful…. When you arrive at a holiday event remembering that even the challenging relatives have wonderful attributes, you frame the whole day as being about blessings—which is the whole point, after all.