Surviving the holidays

Surviving the holidays

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Professor shares advice for couples, families to ease tensions
Broken Christmas ornamentsThe holidays can be a stressful time, but there are lots of ways to manage emotions and make this season of extreme togetherness and maybe even experience a little joy. Photo by Tim Schoon.

Life is stressful enough for busy couples and families any time of the year.

Throw in a dash of frenzied holiday shopping, family celebrations, and societal expectations and even the happiest and strongest of couples and families are bound to feel stress.

Whether Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or any cultural, religious, or family occasion that brings people together, family tension can intensify as old family wounds are re-opened along with presents. Cherished traditions and rituals can also be disrupted as serious illness, a major move, divorce, or deaths impact a couple or family.

“It’s important for people to realize that there is tension in all families, even the healthiest and happiest of families, and that’s normal."
-Volker Thomas

“It’s important for people to realize that there is tension in all families, even the healthiest and happiest of families, and that’s normal,” Volker Thomas says. “It’s how people deal with those tensions that can make a difference.” But there are ways to cope with these celebrations and changes, says Thomas, professor and chair of the Couple and Family Therapy Program in the UI College of Education's Rehabilitation and Counselor Education Department.

[Related: Thomas trains future generations of couple, family therapists through UI program]

Following are practical tips Thomas offers for people as they approach the holidays:

  • Before opening gifts, sit around a table, a fireplace, or a meal and give verbal presents. Share favorite memories or stories from the past or give each other compliments or wishes or give encouragement about one another's New Year's resolutions.
  • If you give gifts, try to make them more thoughtful rather than default to a gift card, unless you know it's a person's favorite store or they've explicitly asked for a gift card. It's often not about how much you spend but how much thought you've put into making something personal or special.
  • Think about and reflect upon expectations for holiday gatherings, whether you’re hosting or traveling elsewhere to celebrate. Define what you would like to do in advance. If you're traveling, use that time in the plane or car to set realistic expectations.
  • Communicate and negotiate with family members in advance regarding what rituals and traditions you want to continue and where you might create new ones. This may be especially important for families where people are bringing together different cultures or new family configurations.
  • Put away the smart phone and other electronic devices. By unplugging, you can be more present with one another rather than get distracted by emails and texts.
  • Though games are one way to spend time together, they can stir up competitive impulses that increase tension in a family. Try to limit game-playing time and focus on activities where everyone can participate equally. For instance, listen to music, take a walk, cook together, or watch a favorite movie. Getting up, moving around and pursuing smaller group activities is better than trying to engage everyone in the same activity, especially if you have a large gathering.
  • Be aware that rituals can be altered. In many families, after the meal, the men gravitate to the TV to watch sports, and the women stay in the kitchen. But the truth is that some women would rather watch football or basketball and some men who would rather hang out and talk. Activities don’t have to be divided by generations or by gender.

"It’s important to understand that in all cultures, societies have social rituals and the holidays here have become much more social and family rituals in addition to the religious context," Thomas says. "Rituals are social behaviors that are predictable. There's a social agreement that at certain times, people will behave certain ways. But the holidays have become very commercialized over the years, and the longer we do this in a repetitive way—and all families within the cultural norms develop their own variations of norms of how the holidays are celebrated. Then family members are expected to meet those expectations, and if you don't meet them, then grievances develop over time."

Thomas says he and his family have developed their own traditions over the years, though they have evolved over time.

"I love listening to classical German music," he says. "One of our family traditions is to listen to Handel’s Messiah, which is about two and one half hours long, so we have one day over the break when the kids are home when we sit around and have German gingerbread and listen to music and have a conversation.

"Just having the music on puts everyone into more of a relaxing mode," Thomas adds. "We also always light candles and turn all the artificial lights off, and we have tea or coffee. It’s very relaxing, and it’s kind of a transition for our adult kids. There are no limits for using creativity to have some fun together."


Volker Thomas, Couple and Family Therapy Program in the UI College of Education Rehabilitation Counselor Education Department, 319-335-5288
Lois J. Gray, University Communication and Marketing, 319-384-0077


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