Family Change During the Holidays

The holidays are a time of tradition. Whether it’s Christmas Eve at Grandma’s or, as it is in my family, all the women getting together days before to make rouladen and semmelknodel. But for more and more families each year the holidays have become a time to prepare for new traditions.

According to the Stepfamily Foundation, 1300 new stepfamilies are forming every day. The pressure to have a stress-free, perfect holiday where everyone is pleased is very real. This can feel even more important when going through family change.

Family change during the holidays may mean accepting new family members and some of their traditions, going to and from multiple homes rather than experiencing the holiday in one place, being uncomfortable, or changing tradition after years of doing the same thing in the same place. It can also mean having the opportunity to try something new, creating new friendships, discovering bravery and strength, and cherishing the time together with loved ones more deeply.

Change is not easy, but inevitable. We can choose to fight it or embrace it. As the holiday season approaches, if your family is going through some change, keep these tips in mind:

Have Realistic Expectations:

It is tempting to want to provide children with a holiday so wonderful that they do not feel sad. Their feelings about the changing dynamics and relationships will happen regardless of how many presents they have or how busy their schedule is.

Include Children in Making Decisions:

Involve your children in decision-making where it makes sense and answer their questions to the best of your ability. When possible, include them in the process of creating new traditions and saying goodbye to old ones. Being transparent with the planning process will help your children anticipate the changes and new activities rather than just reacting to whatever happens.

Validate the Experience:

Let them know that whatever they are feeling is okay. Acknowledge their feelings, normalize them, and provide opportunities for them to express themselves authentically. It is possible to feel sad and happy in the same moment and it is important for children to know that we are all capable of happiness in the midst of loss or pain. Don’t shy away from the tough stuff because ‘it’s a holiday and we’re supposed to be happy!’ Instead, use phrases like, “I know you’re [insert emotion] about [insert situation], at the same time, it’s time for you to go with your dad to your grandparent’s house. I love you.”

Choose Your Battles:

As frustrating as it might be to keep your cool when emotions are riding high, be your best self for your children and cherish the time you have with them. Think beyond the one difficult day or moment and set a positive example for them. After asking a family member what they wish someone had said during their first Christmas Eve without their children she replied, “I wish someone had said, ‘It’s one day.’ Any day could be Christmas Eve, look at all the other days you get to spend with your kids; enjoy the time together, whenever it is.”

Plan Ahead:

Avoid unnecessary stress by communicating wants and needs and having an exit strategy. If things get particularly challenging or a child is overwhelmed by their emotions know where you can go and how you might respond. Talk with a trusted friend or family member ahead of time about your concerns and do what is right for you. Talking with someone may help you clarify what is most important to you during the holidays.

The reality is, the idyllic picture-perfect holiday does not exist, no matter how “intact” your family is. What children want and need during the holidays, regardless of circumstances, is a relaxed, fun, and loving time with loved ones.

Exercises to Increase Self-Compassion

How self-compassionate are you?

How do you typically react to yourself?
  • What types of things do you typically judge and criticize yourself for (appearance, career, relationships, parenting, etc.)?
  • What type of language do you use with yourself when you notice some flaw or make a mistake (do you insult yourself, or do you take a more kind and understanding tone)?
  • When you are being highly self-critical, how does this make you feel inside?
  • When you notice something about yourself you don’t like, do you tend to feel cut off from others, or do you feel connected with your fellow humans who are also imperfect?
  • What are the consequences of being so hard on yourself? Does it make you more motivated and happy, or discouraged and depressed?
  • How do you think you would feel if you could truly love and accept yourself exactly as you are? Does this possibility scare you, give you hope, or both?
How do you typically react to life difficulties?

How do you treat yourself when you run into challenges in your life? Do you tend to ignore the fact that you’re suffering and focus exclusively on fixing the problem, or do you stop to give yourself care and comfort? Do you tend to get carried away by the drama of the situation, so that you make a bigger deal out of it than you need to, or do you tend to keep things in balanced perspective? Do you tend to feel cut off from others when things go wrong, with the irrational feeling that everyone else is having a better time of it then you, or do you get in touch with the fact that all humans experience hardship in their lives?
If you feel that you lack sufficient self-compassion, check in with yourself – are you criticizing yourself for this too? If so, stop right there. Try to feel compassion for how difficult it is to be an imperfect human being in this extremely competitive society of ours. Most of us live in cultures that do not emphasize self-compassion, quite the opposite. We’re told that we’re being lazy and self-indulgent if we don’t harshly criticize ourselves. We’re told that no matter how hard we try, our best just isn’t good enough. It’s time for something different. We can
all benefit by learning to be more self-compassionate, and now is the perfect time to start.

Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion (pp. 13-15). New York: William Morrow.

Self-Compassion Journal

Try keeping a daily self-compassion journal for one week (or longer if you like.) Journaling is an effective way to express emotions, and has been found to enhance both mental and physical well-being. At some point during the evening when you have a few quiet moments, review the day’s events. In your journal, write down anything that you felt bad about, anything you judged yourself for, or any difficult experience that caused you pain. (For instance, perhaps you got angry at a waitress at lunch because she took forever to bring the check. You made a rude comment and stormed off without leaving a tip. Afterwards, you felt ashamed and embarrassed.) For each event, use mindfulness, a sense of common humanity, and kindness to process the event in a self-compassionate way.

Mindfulness.

This will mainly involve bring awareness to the painful emotions that arose due to your self-judgment or difficult circumstances. Write about how you felt: sad, ashamed, frightened, stressed, and so on. As you write, try to be accepting and non-judgmental of your experience, not belittling it nor making it overly dramatic. (For example,“I was frustrated because she was being so slow. I got angry, over-reacted, and felt foolish afterwards.”)

Common Humanity.

Write down the ways in which your experience was connected to the larger human experience. This might include acknowledging that being human means being imperfect, and that all people have these sorts of painful experiences. (“Everyone over-reacts sometimes, it’s only human.”) You might also want to think about the various causes and conditions underlying the painful event. (“My frustration was exacerbated by the fact that I was late for my doctor’s appointment across town and there was a lot of traffic that day. If the circumstances had been different my reaction probably would have been different.”)

Self-Kindness.

Write yourself some kind, understanding, words of comfort. Let yourself know that you care about yourself, adopting a gentle, reassuring tone. (It’s okay. You messed up but it wasn’t the end of the world. I understand how frustrated you were and you just lost it. Maybe you can try being extra patient and generous to any wait-staff this week…”)

Practicing the three components of self-compassion with this writing exercise will help organize your thoughts and emotions, while helping to encode them in your memory. If you keep a journal regularly, your self compassion practice will become even stronger and translate more easily into daily life.

Neff, K. (2017). Exercise 6: Self-Compassion Journal. Retrieved from http://self-compassion.org/exercise-6-self-compassion-journal/