Dec. 22, 2010 -- Whether it's over the river and through the woods, or off to the airport and a transcontinental, the hustle and bustle involved in seeing family over the holidays can be physically and emotionally draining.
Especially if you're dealing with the demands of a houseful of relatives or attempting to amicably split the festivities between branches of the family tree that don't get along, it can be tempting to just stay home.
And this may not be such a bad idea, psychologists say.
While avoiding kin altogether is probably not a good idea, taking a holiday off from trying to see and please all your relatives may be restorative for familial relations.
"What you need to think about is how to make most positive the time spent with your family," says Nadine Kaslow, professor and chief psychologist at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. "Is that a short visit, not going on the holiday but a few weeks after? Maybe do it every other year. It's important to consider all the options and perhaps find a middle ground that you and your family can live with."
Making the Holidays Work for You
For some the holidays are a long-awaited time of family gathering, when relatives who are scattered throughout the country can come together and reconnect. In these instances, the hassle of travel may be the only thing putting a damper on the season.
For many others, however, cramming family time into a hectic few days can be a recipe for drama and bickering. Family members who get along beautifully one-on-one may not mesh so well when they're brought together with mothers and grandfathers and aunts and all other order of relatives under one roof.
For those who fall into the latter category, making sure the holidays are a time of gratitude for one's family may involve some strategic scheduling and, possibly, scheduled time off from them.
"Families -- we love them and they're challenging," says Dr. Carol Bernstein, associate professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine. "Each person should try to be open to the possibilities of ways of spending the holidays, one being not even going if the end result is going to be more painful and destructive than not going," .
Staying Home for the Holidays
Sometimes it's a matter of length or the timing of a visit, Kaslow says. If the family expects a weeklong visit where you want to come for just a day, find a middle ground, she suggests. If the holiday is an emotionally charged time, try coming a week after or before.
"Some kind of attachment with family is very important, but there are all sorts of ways to connect with family," she adds. Finding a way that everyone can handle is going to be more valuable than trying to please everyone, she says.
The key ingredient in navigating scheduling is communication, psychologists say. Telling your loved ones that you will not be there for the celebration can lead to hurt feelings and even more drama if you do not explain that you still want to see them, only on different terms, says Adam Davey, associate professor at Temple University College of Health Professions and Social Work.
"Whatever the arrangement, make sure people understand the reasoning behind it," he says. Also, "people like choices," so bring up holiday scheduling early and give parents an option between Thanksgiving and Christmas, for instance, Davey says. Make it a collective decision.
Minimize Stress While With the Fam
When the family festivities do roll around, psychologists offer two pieces of advice on how to minimize stress and maximize relationship harmony: Take care of yourself, and keep expectations low.
"So often people have unrealistic expectations of what the holidays should be," Kaslow says, which only sets them up for disappointment.
Considering that the holidays can be the longest extended period of time spent with certain family members, there can be additional pressure to resolve past arguments or have big bonding experiences at this time, Davey says, and this just adds unnecessary pressure.
"Holidays probably aren't the ideal times to address issues such as a parent's health, a child's future, or an in-law's personality. As real and important as those issues may be, it is probably better to enjoy the holiday first, and then use insights gained from that time together to have a more constructive and perhaps less emotionally charged conversation once the holiday is over," he says.
Instead, just expect to enjoy each other's company, nothing more complicated than that, he adds.
And when stress and emotions run high with family, people usually forget to take care of their own mental space, Kaslow says.
"Go take a walk to clear your head from family drama, go see some friends in the neighborhood, whatever you need to take care of yourself so you're in a good place to interact with others," she says.