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Family Holiday Drama: An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

family dinnerphoto credit: Julemiddag via photopin (license)

Andy Williams sang in 1963 that “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” and for some this may be true. However, for others the holiday season can be very stressful. The ways in which conflict could arise during the holidays are endless. Family and drama seem almost synonymous with the holiday season. The irony is we are supposed to want to be with family for this special time of year, but many people I talk with seem to feel the opposite. Why is it that for some spending time with their family seems like a form a torture instead of something with which to be excited?

Family togetherness can bring about unaddressed emotions and resentments that have built up over the years. Emotional baggage combined with changes in the family structure such as deaths, births, marriage, and even children becoming young adults add to the stress and possible resistance to changes. There is a multitude of reasons why family brings about so much stress. So how can you combat this?

I stumbled upon a Ted Talk given by Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, and he describes a concept that was written about by Psychologist Gary Klein called prospective hindsight or premortem. The concept is often used in project management settings; however, it could also be effective in managing stress in other areas of your life.

The idea is to imagine a situation that could potentially be disastrous, and develop preventative measures to eliminate or minimize the possible catastrophes from occurring. For example, Aunt Sylvia always has a habit of drinking too much at Christmas dinner. Early in the night her comments and stories are funny; but, after awhile her remarks become nasty and people get hurt and offended. You could eliminate or minimize this situation by:

  1. Don’t serve alcohol.
  2. Minimize the amount of alcohol served.
  3. Call Aunt Sylvia ahead of time and set limits.

Here is another typical example. We all have family members who don’t get along due to past resentments and pent-up emotions. It only takes one sarcastic comment to trigger an emotional avalanche. A preventative measure could be to call those family members separately to discuss what it would take not to react to each other, so it does not negatively affect the Christmas gathering.

Another example is family members with opposing views on hot topics. Ideally, everyone knows to banned religion, politics, and money from the conversation. But, every once and awhile they sneak into the conversation, so if you know you have a liberal and a conservative coming to dinner make sure they aren’t sitting next to each other.

Or if your mother/mother-in-law previously hosted Christmas dinner and may be feeling territorial about it being “her holiday,” you could ask her to help you, so she doesn’t feel entirely excluded. Or, if she is the type to be overly critical and make passive aggressive comments you could prepare yourself so when it occurs you can smile and thank her for her guidance.

Thinking about all the ways the holiday season could be stressful and disastrous may seem like a negative outlook. But it is helping you to plan for the worse to ensure it doesn’t happen and that your holiday is a happy one.

I challenge each of you to use prospective hindsight while planning for the holidays. Hopefully in doing so, you will find yourself a lot less stressed and maybe even looking forward to the holidays with your family!

Happy Holidays!

Abigail R. C. McManus M.S Negotiation and Conflict Management


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