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How to juggle family during the holidays

Nine tips to reduce stress and avoid family conflicts this Christmas

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Feel pulled in a million directions? Yes, it’s that time of year again. The holidays are a time of joy, mirth, questionable decorating tastes and family-induced guilt. As the child of divorced parents, my anxiety sets in around August, as my brain whirrs away with possible scenarios that will keep everyone happy. Ha! Impossible. But things really get difficult once you’re coupled up and you have obligations to multiple families, all of whom are clamouring to pinch the cheeks of grandchildren and ask you why they’ve never seen you wear that sweater they bought you last year.

We asked Joanna Seidel, an individual, couples and family therapist for some tips on how couples can make things run a little more smoothly:

Don’t get hung up on being fair. “Every family has different relationships with their family members and extended family,” says Seidel. “It’s not really a question of dividing 50/50; it’s about who the relationships are with and who you want to share that time with.”

Make your decisions jointly. Regardless of what you decide, the most important thing is to reach a decision collectively – from how many events to attend to which parties you’re going to host and who you’re going to invite.

Don’t go into the poorhouse. Finances are another common source of stress during the holidays, and if making everyone else happy includes booking flights and buying gifts – things you can’t afford right now – then consider taking a step back. Be honest with loved ones if money is an issue.

Approach requests with love, not joyless subservience. If your family is trying to guilt you into spending more time with them, Seidel recommends starting with compassion. “Is there more time you can spend with the family? Is the relationship not strong enough?” she asks. But we can’t please everyone. “As long as we try to meet some needs of the people we love, and as long as we’re expressing love and warmth, then that’s more important than going to their holiday party.”

It’s not the only time you can see your family. The holidays are short and the years are long. “Our commitment to our family spans across your lifetime,” says Seidel. “If you can’t get to everybody over the holidays, you have lots of other opportunities to show your love and affection.” (In January, for example, when everything is on sale.)

Don’t fall prey to spite. If scheduling the holidays is really driving you bananas, it might be tempting to put a fire in the fireplace and indulge in a relaxing Christmas for two. But Seidel says that sitting out family festivities is short sighted. (Unless it’s really bad.) “Even when there’s conflict or distress, you sometimes have to attend when it’s important to a family member,” she says. Think about whether your actions are going to escalate or diffuse tensions – especially with the in-laws.

Safeguard your own sanity. One of the most difficult boundaries to establish is the balance between meeting your own needs and the needs of those you love. “You see a lot of anxiety, depression and relapsing addictions this time of year because of the stress,” says Seidel. But if one side of the family serves up a side of crazy with every cup of eggnog, then it might be best for everyone if you don’t stay for a week.

Consider bringing everyone together. If you do find yourself in the middle of a tug of war for your time, Seidel recommends bringing the families together. Sure, you’ll have more dishes to wash and canapés to assemble, but at least your weird uncle’s reign of terror will be diffused across a much larger group.

Try to relax. Seidel’s best advice is to stop worrying and make the most of it. “If you’re busy and you have a lot of events and a lot of family members to see, embrace it and welcome the connections,” she says. After all, not everyone is lucky enough to be so in demand for the holidays.