This holiday season, we’re embracing all things cozy, taking time to reflect and nourish ourselves in the ways that address our needs. We’re also setting aside some time to take care of our mental health and relationships during a season that can turn pretty stressful pretty quickly, which is why we’ve taken a beat to sit down with a therapist in our network to talk about challenging family dynamics during this time of year.
First, let’s all take a collective deep breath. Inhale. Exhale. Okay, now let’s talk about the complications of going home (or not!) for the holidays. Our families have a way of simultaneously being among our favorite people and also catalyzing deep-seated uncomfy feelings, especially when everyone’s under one roof for the holiday season. We’re very familiar with the tension that why-are-you-still-single and loaded political/religious questions can cause, so we’re consulting an expert for how to go about addressing these tensions in an empathetic and healthy way. Enter: Alma.
Alma is a network and community of therapists, currently based in NYC. Alma’s mission is to improve the experience of therapy for both providers and clients, and to simplify access to high quality, affordable mental health care. To do this, Alma supports providers via a membership model with everything they need to run a private practice, including beautifully designed spaces for care if they need it. For anyone seeking therapy, Alma supports clients in their search for the right therapist according to individual needs, whether that means cost, area of focus, language, or identity. Simply put, Alma is making space for therapy. Meet Laura, an Alma therapist:
Laura Athey-Lloyd, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Midtown East, Manhattan. She sees adults, children, and families for psychodynamic psychotherapy, which is why we thought she was the perfect person to answer our most pressing home-for-the-holidays family questions.
GNI: How do I set boundaries with family who share different beliefs from me?
LAL: This is so tricky, and comes up for many of my clients year after year. Every family is different — some decide that some topics are just too incendiary and contract not to bring them up at all. Some decide together on what the limit is, e.g., we can talk about X but only until someone starts raising their voice. Consider having a family “meeting” (either in person or over email) in advance to get ahead of any tough topics, especially if your last time together was really conflictual.
How do I tell my family I’m not coming home for the holidays this year?
First of all, prepare to weather their disappointment. Families react in a range of ways to this news, ranging from accepting to upset to downright passive aggressive. Think a bit about what kind of reaction you’re likely to receive and prepare accordingly. Offer them an alternative to look forward to, e.g., “Since I can’t make it for Christmas, I will be sure to be there for your birthday.” Also give some thought to any of your own feelings of guilt and sit with that feeling for a bit. It’s normal to feel some guilt, but remind yourself of the valid reasons for your decision.
Tips for creating an ally in your family/friend group to go to at gathering if it feels overwhelming?
This is a suggestion I make all the time! Identify a safe “ally” within the event whom you can signal if you feel overwhelmed. Make sure to alert them beforehand that you are feeling some anticipatory anxiety about the event and make a plan with them for how you will signal their attention, such as a code word or a gesture. Discuss too how you or they might provide an exit opportunity — either excusing yourselves to the restroom, or simply changing the topic of conversation.
How do I set boundaries with my family before I go home, so I can avoid having to do it on the spot?
Again, getting in front of potential issues often has huge payoff. Your loved one can work through their initial, often defensive, reactions to your request for boundaries, and have some time to cool off before the event itself. Find a time that’s good to talk, in advance, and give examples how things have gotten out of hand in the past. Take responsibility for your side of the conflicts. And say that because the relationship with them is important to you, you are motivated to take a different approach together this year.
How do I make my loved ones feel heard/understood without taking sides?
A great technique from couples therapy works well in pretty much any interpersonal context, particularly high-conflict ones. It’s called “mirroring.” Instead of formulating your own response while someone is still talking, actively listen to your loved one by focusing on their words, and reflecting them back in paraphrase. For example, if someone is telling you about their political beliefs, say “So it sounds like you believe __. Did I get that right?” If they agree, then follow up with, “Can you say more about that?” Once people feel truly heard for a while, they are more likely to be available to listen to you, especially if your follow-up opinion differs.
How do I deal with having estranged relatives that other members of my family still spend time with during holiday events?
I’ve seen this scenario bring up a lot of resentment on all sides, both in the folks estranged from one another, who often feel betrayed that others still maintain a relationship, and on the part of the family members caught in the middle, who have to navigate the fallout of an estrangement they didn’t create. If you are part of the estrangement, please have patience and forgiveness for your loved ones trying to maintain their relationships. Don’t ask them to take “sides,” as it will likely have the opposite effect of increasing their discomfort with you. If you are caught in the middle, try to keep the confidentiality of the estranged parties, and validate their point of view without demonizing the other or adding to the rift.
Do you have tips for navigating family relationships and setting boundaries around the holidays? Click here to subscribe to our newsletter, and be a part of conversations like this one.
Illustration by Sunny Eckerle.