Garret Evans GDEvans@ifas.ufl.edu, (352) 392-1839 ext. 249
GAINESVILLE, FLA.—Family conflicts can be exacerbated under the stress of the holiday season, particularly on the heels of a divisive presidential election, but a University of Florida expert offers suggestions for setting aside differences and letting love rule during the holidays.
“Getting through family events requires a lot of flexibility and the ability to remember that, although you didn’t pick your family, they didn’t pick you either,” said UF psychologist Garret Evans. “In many families, even though they might argue over politics or lifestyles, when push comes to shove, they quickly rally to each other.”
According to a 2003 Gallup survey, 76 percent of American adults reported losing sleep between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve Day. A third of those cited family issues as the leading stressor contributing to their sleep loss.
All the stresses of the season, including preparing for travel, financing gifts and decorating the house, can make family get-togethers seem that much harder to deal with, said Evans, an associate professor in the family, youth and community sciences department at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Anxiety associated with balancing travel preparations, gift wrapping, and work and home responsibilities may be the real reason you’re loathing the family weekend, not the visit itself.
Dinner table clashes over politics, religion and other issues can arise when children grow up, experience life on their own and come to their own conclusions about the world, Evans said.
“It’s tough for parents to see their adult kids adopt their own values and beliefs,” he said. “Parents care about how their kids view them, and they want to be seen as the end all, be all in their children’s eyes.”
Acknowledging that there are still a lot of raw nerves after the election, Evans recommends the topic be avoided altogether when differing views exist. Turning off the TV during the evening news helps to keep the subject from coming up and striking an agreement between family members to keep certain topics off limits works, too.
“I know families that have declared a public truce to not speak about politics,” Evans said.
Another sticky issue can be religion, especially since the holidays are very religious celebrations for many Americans, Evans said.
“I encourage flexibility. You haven’t been to church in three years and your mother wants you to go? Why not give it a shot? You love her, it will make her happy, the music is pretty good and you will have a chance to break out that old turtleneck sweater Aunt Heloise gave you four years ago,” he said.
To give everyone space during extended visits, Evans suggests scheduling an activity or two outside of the house for just you and your spouse or kids.
Karl Pillemer, a Cornell University sociologist, said he agrees that family stress is heightened at the holidays.
“This may be the only time of year that we are thrown together with our parents and siblings,” Pillemer said. “It’s helpful for everyone to acknowledge that being together again can re-activate family conflicts. Feelings of ambivalence are often common, as family members feel both strong feelings of attachment but also irritation as the time together continues.”
But some advance planning and mental preparation can cut down on conflicts.
“Above all, remind yourself of your common bonds with your family — the memories of bath time with your brother or sister or your child’s first word or baseball game,” Evans said. “We lose touch with these memories over time and distance. People often say that the most fun they have with their family is reminiscing and remembering the silly things. Most family members share more similarities than differences.”