by Ester Kane

A family therapist shares tried-and-true tricks for surviving family holidays without losing yourself or your sanity.  
In this article, I want to share some things I’ve learned doing family therapy over the years and give you some strategies for dealing with the “crazies” that are inevitably brought on by too much “family togetherness” during the holiday season.  Dealing with family is, at the best of times, challenging. Add to that ‘great expectations’ (or fantasies) of one or more of the following: 

·         curling up with your loved ones in front of a roaring fire while sipping hot chocolate or mulled cider

·         buying the “perfect” gift for a family member and delighting in the joy it brings them

·         family gathering together from far and wide and putting all of their differences aside to enjoy a special holiday together wherein everybody gets along, there are no fights, and everybody is floating along the blissful sea of “family unity”

·         preparing the “perfect” family dinner that everyone enthusiastically feasts on, appreciates deeply, and thanks you for endlessly from the bottom of their hearts (oh, and they also clean up while you sit with your feet up on the sofa) 
·         spending some “quality time” with a special relative you haven’t seen in a while; just the two of you

And I’m sure I haven’t covered them all!  Feel free to add your own fantasy of the “perfect holiday” here…
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that the typical family holiday doesn’t usually look like any of the above! And why is this?

Why do we individually and collectively delude ourselves into believing that there is such a thing as the “perfect holiday” anyway?  Why do we hold up such great hopes for the season, and then often end up landing flat on our faces in the mud full of sadness, anger, and great disappointment? 
I’m sure many of you are screaming out, “The media!” and you’d be right. The illusion of perfectly happy, well-adjusted families gathering together in joy SELLS.  It sells a lot! Down from men’s colognes, all the way up to new cars!
Guess when my busiest season is as a therapist?  RIGHT AFTER THE WINTER HOLIDAYS!  I don’t dare take a vacation at the beginning of January as my phone is ringing off the hook and people are desperate to come in and make sense of why they feel so many unpleasant feelings following being with their families-of-origin over the holiday season.

One thing I hear over and over again at this time of year is, “Why didn’t I see it coming?  How did I end up in the same place AGAIN with my family after I’ve worked so hard on those relationships as an adult? How could I have been so stupid?”

While I feel that beating oneself up is pointless and unnecessarily damaging, I do feel that it makes sense to do all that we can in terms of healthy self-care when planning to spend time with family; especially during important holidays when everyone’s expectations are high and nerves are frayed.
Here are a few suggestions and ideas for taking care of yourself over the holidays that have worked for many of my clients:

·         Limit the length of time you stay with family or have family stay with you to something that doesn’t make you want to hide out under the covers for days on end when you think about it (trust your gut- you’ll know what is the right length of time).

·         If you’re surrounded by other people for a number of days and things begin to feel really intense, make sure you take some time away EVERY DAY- even plan your “alone time” for each day of the visit before the actual event and schedule around it.  Take an hour to emotionally “decompress” and go for a walk, window-shop, take the dog out, have a bubble bath, or whatever else centres you.

·         Lower expectations of yourself and others- try to stay in reality and stop fantasizing about having a “perfect holiday”.  Be realistic and plan for the worst-case scenarios that are possible so that you’re prepared for them.  And if they don’t happen, enjoy that!

·         Remember that no matter how old we are now, when we’re with our family (especially parents), we revert to feeling like we’re about 10 years old and that’s just the way it is.  Don’t fight it, but also frequently remind yourself that you are not a child; you are a grown woman and have choices.

·         If you sense that getting together with family over the holidays would be very detrimental to your well-being (there are many families in this category), let go of guilt and opt out and spend the holidays with friends who make you feel really good and bring out the best in you.  Some families really are toxic and you may need to set very intense boundaries in order to deal with them.

And lastly, remember that HOLIDAYS ARE TEMPORARY AND WILL BE OVER SOON, or in other words, “This too shall pass”… they aren’t meant to be an endurance test; they’re meant to be fun.  It’s also really important to keep a positive attitude and remember to be playful and to not take stuff too seriously.

Peace to your and yours this holiday season…

Esther Kane, MSW, Registered Clinical Counsellor, is the author of the soon-to-be-released book and audio program, “It’s Not About the Food: A  Woman’s Guide To Making Peace with Food and Our Bodies” ( and “Dump That Chump”( ), and “What Your Mama Can’t or Won’t Teach You”(  Sign up for her free monthly e-zine, Women’s Community Counsellor, to uplift and inspire women at: .