Family is wonderful, but that doesn’t mean spending time with them is always stress-free. Do things a little differently this festive season…
The holiday season isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. You fret about finances, you squabble with your hubby about your in-laws, and the feud between your mom and aunt puts a damper on the festive spirit.
According to Dr Ashley Smyth, Academic Dean at the South African College of Applied Psychology, the reality of the season differs vastly from the merry displays you see in shop windows.
‘This is a very stressful time of year, because there are a lot of factors that go into this season. It’s not just about friends and family – it’s about winding up the year, so everybody is tired; the material cost of the Christmas season, particularly on families; and also trying to wind down from work mode to a holiday mood. That can be very stressful.’
The art of negotiation
Consciously or not, holidays always involve an element of negotiation. Who will you see, when and for how long? Dr Smyth suggests that during this process, family members – and friends who are considered family – fall into four categories:
- People you want to spend time with
- People you want to (and must) spend time with
- People you don’t want to (but must) spend time with
- People you don’t want to (and must not) spend time with.
‘That negotiation is quite a frazzled process, because nobody wants to talk about the third category. It’s often difficult and very emotive to get into that third category. The fourth category – those we don’t want to spend time with and mustn’t spend time with – are the toxic elements of the family.’
Life coach and motivational speaker Godfrey Madanhire offers some practical advice on how to approach the negotiation: ‘Don’t even think of negotiating with your family before you discuss the options with your partner. You and your partner should decide what suits you; what you are prepared to do in terms of negotiations; and what’s most important for your family, and only then should you bring your chosen options to the table to discuss with your families.
‘It’s a time for family fun, so don’t be inflexible, but equally, don’t allow the build-up to it to become so stressful in planning the logistics that half the family have their noses out of joint before the holiday celebration begins.’
Reaping what you sow
Dr Smyth points out that we all have ‘love’ and ‘belonging’ needs, and the holiday season – more than any other time in the year – gives us an opportunity to have those needs met. Although expectations around this time of the year are rarely met as thoroughly as we’d like, family still plays an important role in making us feel as though we belong.
‘We all need community,’ explains Dr Smyth. ‘At the end of the day, the people who become more and more important in your life are your family. I also have a very strong feeling that the concept of ubuntu applies here. We understand who we are by our relationships with others, which affirm us in our position and place.’
Godfrey, who agrees family relationships are the most important and enduring relationships we can have, says family holidays give your children the opportunity to build relationships with people of different ages.
‘It’s also vital your kids get to see you connecting with other adults, and your own parents and siblings. This gives your children a chance to learn how adults communicate. It can instruct them on how to communicate with their own parents (you), as well as their siblings and cousins. It also gives them an opportunity to see you in action, not just as a parent to them (which is how they see you every day), but as an adult interacting with other adults.’
However, Dr Smyth emphasises that you can’t expect the benefits of family if you have done little to nurture the relationships throughout the year.
‘I think the festive season is a pay-off of what has happened in the rest of the year. A once-a-year effort is actually quite counterproductive, but if it’s a culmination of good and solid family relationships over a period of time, then it makes the festive season very special indeed. It’s either going to be a culmination and a reflection of the richness of family life, or it’s going to be a horrible, stilted and embarrassing situation where nobody knows what to say to one another.’
Burying the hatchet
Without exception, every family has rifts and tensions. Dr Smyth suggests that sometimes the very act of reaching out or being welcomed dissolves some of the resentment.
‘This is when a door opens for conflict resolution, forgiveness and conversation. I think coming together – just being invited or being an invitee – is a huge step. Then, if there is need for further conversation, it opens the door for that too.’
If the conflict has caused an estrangement, Godfrey says it may be easier to get in touch via email. ‘Make initial contact by email to break the ice and then ask for a chance to chat. That email correspondence may just give you a clue as to what the most serious issues are that you need to address when you meet. When you speak to the other party, avoid trying to score points or win your side of the battle. Apologise for where you’ve been wrong, highlight the issues that have hurt you and express how you need to ensure they understand what the problem was for you so that you can all move forward as a family.’
When your family does get together, ensure small squabbles don’t widen into big rifts. If necessary, agree to avoid certain topics – such as politics or religion – entirely, and discuss logistical issues in a family meeting so everyone knows where they stand.
‘Just remember to not let things get personal,’ says Godfrey. ‘Your aim should not be to score points, but enjoy great family time together.’
Bridging the divide
Some family may be far away geographically, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still have close relationships.
- Get creative with Skype Schedule weekly bedtime stories with granny and grandpa for the kids, or a game of hangman, four-in-a-row or charades with their cousins.
- Embrace snail mail The immediacy of modern technology is great, but few things beat a good old-fashioned letter or care package. Your kids will enjoy putting together little care packages for their extended family, and will love getting post in return!
- Find an app that works for you Share short videos on WhatsApp, leave each other voice messages using Voxer if scheduling a time to talk is tricky or create a private network of friends on Instagram so you can easily share your family photos.
- Make it a family effort Whether you’re creating a blog or a family YouTube channel, get your kids involved. Let them film their own videos and help you choose which stories to share with the rest of the family.
This article highlights methods that will be familiar to those with an interest in the counselling profession, which utilises such skills to assist in conflict resolution and stress management. Counsellors can play a vital role in strengthening families, and through them, communities as a whole. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in counselling, SACAP offers a range of counselling courses, such as the Diploma in Counselling and Communication Skills and the Bachelor of Psychology (BPsych). For more information, enquire now.
Article by Rebekkah Kendal, with contributions by SACAP’s Academic Dean, Dr Ashley Smyth