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UTHealth experts offer tips on surviving – and enjoying – family during the holidays

Photo of a man slicing turkey with the caption: How the turkey gets sliced isn't nearly as important as the memories you will make with family over the holidays. Photo by Cora Rhodes
How the turkey gets sliced isn't nearly as important as the memories you will make with family over the holidays. Photo by Cora Rhodes

HOUSTON - (Nov. 14, 2017) - Break out the eggnog. Make that a double. Quicker than you can say, "I burnt the turkey!” your in-laws, out-laws or other visiting relatives will be at your door, bearing re-gifts, pinching cheeks, raising eyebrows at your parenting skills and testing your goodwill.

Real life rarely matches our Norman Rockwellian imaginings of family togetherness or measures up to our gently revised childhood memories. We end up scrolling through Facebook wondering why our family gatherings don’t look like their families’ love fests.

“During this season we gravitate towards idealizing our experiences,” said psychiatrist Melissa Allen, D.O., assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) McGovern Medical School.

Allen, who also is the medical director of the UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Center, said that throwing together a dozen (or 50) assorted personalities is already stressful enough. “But in this social-media-crazed era, people feel the need to create the perfect Christmas card, buy the perfect clothes for the photo on that perfect card, display the perfect decorations – there is this unreasonable expectation out there that everything has to be ‘Pinterest-worthy’ or it’s a failure.”

This year take a deep breath; take two. The holidays don't last forever. You can survive them – maybe even embrace them with a few tips

For starters, the relationship triangle among your in-laws, your spouse and yourself heightens holiday stress. You met your spouse and then your in-laws as an adult. But your spouse's parents raised him from a child, and may still relate to him that way. They may cling to their traditions and ideas of a “perfect” holiday.

“The key here is staying flexible and making the conscious effort to not take things so personally,” Allen said. “This is the ideal time to find additional connections outside of your shared family member and strengthen those relationships. And hard as it may be, try to expand your perspective to include — or at least understand — theirs.”

When it comes to parents and grandparents, time freezes. They were larger than life, world-class listeners, marathon runners, front-lawn quarterbacks who read Beowulf and performed neurosurgery! Now, they may be fragile shadows of themselves.  

“We turn around and somehow our parents or grandparents seemed to have aged overnight,” said UT Physicians geriatrician Carmel B. Dyer, M.D., executive director of the UTHealth Consortium on Aging. “Some of us are still rearing our own kids right when our parents or grandparents need us the most – or when we need them the most.”

Instead of focusing on what you’ve lost, Dyer said, “meet them where they are. Maybe it’s time to capture that story or unearth that family recipe. Engage the family ahead of time to draw out the rich lives of your elder relatives, and do it while your children are young enough to be spellbound.”

If your aging loved ones are experiencing dementia, it can be a challenge for everyone during the holidays. “So, take control of the narrative,” Dyer said. “Rather than quiz them about past memories, you be the one to start the story by reminiscing about that crazy winter, that funny neighbor or how well they took care of you as children. And then remember to thank them for that memory and for caring for you so well.”

For younger kids who haven’t seen their elder relatives in a while, show them photos so that they are accustomed to any changes in appearance since their last visit, Dyer and Allen both suggested.

Take control of the relationship in positive ways. “Ask everyone to bring old pictures or something from their youth. Make a collage or team up with the youngsters and play Bingo. Take an active role in bringing forth old – and making new – memories of joy,” Dyer said.

When it comes to blended families, it’s all about communication, Allen said. “Before the holidays, have a gentle but frank conversation that sets not only boundaries, but expectations. Then stick to the plan.”

Make sure that all parties know ahead of time (and have time to accept) who’s going where for what dinner or tree-trimming. Flexibility has to work two ways: both on the part of the hosts and the invited family. The best gift you can give your parents is your adult support.

“Holidays are about the celebration of family, so keep the focus there,” Allen said. “Otherwise, it becomes a competition that nobody truly wins.”

While you may love spending time with your out-of-town family, spending several days can be another story.

"It can be stressful having people in your home who aren't usually there," Allen said. "They have different habits that may irritate you and vice versa. But, it may be helpful to remember that your guests are not on their home turf and therefore are doubly on edge, even if they are surrounded by those they love.”

- Written by Karen Krakower Kaplan

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