Finals are coming to a close, you’re setting your out-of-office notification, and Christmas Eve is rapidly approaching, which, for many people, means traveling home to family is imminent. The anticipation of joining a herd of family members can range from stressful, to anxiety-inducing, to straight up traumatic. So, why do it? I finally learned that I didn’t have to. Becoming a child of divorce in my early 20s led to some seriously awkward family Christmases, and has continued to lead to anxiety when divvying time with my parents. They’re both extremely accommodating, and it’s still a huge stress in my life.
“Holidays are typically significant for families, which means everything tends to get heightened,” said Nancy Brittain, a Denver-based LCSW. “Feelings, emotions, destructive behaviors, dysfunctional dynamics—a holiday gathering can bring it all out of the woodwork.” Fortunately, I have parents who support my independence and understand that holidays aren’t the most enjoyable time for me to hang around family. Many others have families who are less understanding, not accommodating, or overtly abusive. In talking with friends, therapists, and friends who are therapists (everyone should have at least one of those), I discovered that I wasn’t the only one who really didn’t want to go home for the holidays. Read on for seven tips if you’re struggling too.
Know that it’s your choice where you spend the holidays
PSA: Your emotional health comes first. Yes, I said first. If time with family compromises some aspect of this, you can reevaluate your holiday plans without feeling guilt or remorse because your responsibility is to prioritize your wellbeing. “Sometimes taking care of yourself means having boundaries around when you can go home and the context in which you can see your family,” Brittain suggested. If you don’t believe it is truly your choice where you spend the holidays (instead of your parent’s, sibling’s, or grandparent’s), ask yourself why you feel that way. Remind yourself that you are in control of your decisions and your job is to protect your wellbeing, whatever that means for you.
If you’re on the fence, think through the experience of being home
Going through the thought exercise of being home and interacting with family can be a valuable decision-making tool. “I encourage people to think about their behaviors when they’re with family, and what effect that has on them in the following weeks and months,” suggested Benjamin White, an LCSW/CGP based in Colorado. Do you drink more than usual? Do you have trouble sleeping? Sometimes the experience is a tolerable frustration, while other times the repercussions are physical and damaging.
Suggest an alternative time or place
Marriage, children, loss of a family member, divorce—family circumstances frequently change, which means what the holidays this year might look very different for you than holidays past, and therefore requires alternatives. Whether you want to join your partner’s family or you just need space from your own, consider suggesting an alternate time that’s less emotionally charged. “The significance of the day is time spent together,” Brittain recommended. “Try communicating that you’ll be pulled in fewer directions if it’s at a different time.”
Remember that conflict is a sign of a healthy relationship.
Doubtful your family can handle news of your absence? Try it. “People are so terrified to say or do anything that might hurt their parents,” White said. He explains that healthy relationships involve safe connections where you can say and do things that might not please other people. “Shifting into an adult relationship involves testing that. People are worried that their parents will be so offended that they’ll be cold, but if that’s the case, is that a relationship that you want?” In other words, you should be able to effectively communicate your wants, needs, and boundaries in healthy relationships, even if it leads to uncomfortable conversations. Remember that the dynamic is no longer a parent-child relationship and you’re an adult now too.
Acknowledge their disappointment and excuse yourself from guilt
Susie Hair, an LCSW-S/CEDS in Dallas, Texas, explains that guilt is something we experience when we intentionally inflict pain or harm on another person. Unless you’re intentionally trying to hurt your family by not coming home (which is a topic for another article), recognize that it’s natural for family members to respond with disappointment. “It’s OK for people to be disappointed,” she said. “It’s a normal feeling.” Your family will likely feel disappointed because they want to be with you, so acknowledge how they feel without allowing yourself to feel the guilt of it. Other people’s disappointment is not your burden or responsibility. Period.
Only give a simple explanation
While honesty and open communication is important, you don’t need to give an explanation that would cause you more stress. If an honest conversation about your sister’s addiction will crush your family, it’s probably not the right time to get to the root of why you’re opting out of a holiday gathering. Hair offers a catch-all explanation: “If it’s too stressful to talk about why you don’t want to come home, express a desire to start your own holiday traditions in the same way your family did when you were young.” Only a simple explanation is needed to make the transition as easy as possible for both you and your family.
Be firm in your decision
Set boundaries and expectations by being clear about your intentions not to come home this year. “If you give any sort of possibility that you may come home, your family will go in for the kill,” Hair explained. “It needs to be a firm decision, otherwise it will lead to a series of painful conversations and you’ll have to go through it all again next year.” It took years for me to work up the courage to speak up for myself and say (firmly) I was better off scheduling non-holiday times to come home. But speaking up has made a huge difference in how I experience the holidays and how I relate to my family (and yes, it took some therapy hours to get there). Be empowered and know that how you spend your holidays is a choice. It’s not too late to change your flight or adjust your holiday itinerary. If your family relationships are healthy, your loved ones will understand. If they’re not, it might be a sign to stay home and dig deeper.