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Family Dynamics Around the Thanksgiving Table

Silver Hill Hospital

Thanksgiving is often thought of as a time of warmth and happiness, family gathered around the table creating wonderful family memories. But for many of us, it can also be a time of angst and anxiety.

There are many reasons you may feel stress. Perhaps you are a student struggling with school and are afraid of criticism from your family. You may be unemployed and don’t want to face questions about your job search or finances. Maybe you’ve put on or lost “too much” weight this year and are feeling self conscious. If you have been struggling with depression, mood swings or anxiety, you may be more emotionally vulnerable. This time of year could remind you of someone who has become ill, passed away or moved.

There are as many reasons for holiday stress as there are individuals. All of them are what we at Silver Hill call “triggers” – they can bring about or literally “trigger” feelings of anxiety, loss and frustration.

The holiday season and family events can be enjoyable and help build meaningful connections with the people in your life, but if triggers set you off, you may instead find yourself caught in a riptide of emotion.

In the Silver Hill Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) Program, we teach our patients strategies to deal with cues like these. Three of the strategies are Radical Acceptance, Coping Ahead and Wise Mind.

Radical Acceptance

People usually do not change much from year to year. Personality traits you find irksome will still be there. Your nephew will continue to make snarky comments. The self-obsessed sister will still be talk about herself. Your mother-in-law will continue to make comments about your appearance or weight.

Expecting them to be kinder and gentler will only lead you to disappointment.  Remember, unrealistic expectations are disappointments waiting to happen. Making matters more interesting, people tend to regress when they are around family. You may too. So if your brother really acted like “brat”, don’t be shocked if he behaves like a grown-up version of his younger self. Accepting this fact, and dealing with the people as they are, will reduce your stress.

But Radical Acceptance works to your advantage because the flip side is also true: People who behaved caring towards you will most likely continue to be caring. Your ever warm and wonderful friend will continue to be that way. The cousin with the infectious laugh will not let you down, and your helpful brother-in-law will likely be his old self too.

Find a way to accept your own personal cast of characters, the good and the bad.  It will help you with the next strategy called “Cope Ahead”.

Cope Ahead

Coping ahead is an extremely useful strategy in every aspect of our lives. Its core tenet is exactly as it sounds: Plan ways to cope ahead of the situation.

Think about the day, location and people in advance. Imagine what you might feel, what thoughts might go through your mind, and what urges you might have.  Then come up with a strategy for dealing with those difficult moments.

One of these six may work:

  1. Identify your allies
    Talk with one of your supportive people and agree to be each other’s ally. Discuss strategies you can use if either of you is feeling overwhelmed. 
  2. Take a breather
    Fresh air is always good. Being stuckinside only makes us feel enclosed and stuck. Walk outside for a twenty minute breather. Physical activity gets our endorphins pumping too, which is also a mood enhancer.
  3. Change the conversation
    Someone just can’t stop needling you about your unemployed child? Change the topic. Get them talking about something they care about – something positive.  Maybe they ski or paint or got a new puppy. Ask them how they are doing.
  4. Go to another room
    If everyone is watching the game and you just can’t stand it, find a quiet room if possible. Family events can begin to feel very crowded. We all need some space.
  5. Call a friend
    Yes, family times are “no phone zones” and we certainly don’t encourage you to keep your phone out as an excuse not to deal with everyone around you. But if it really gets overwhelming, step away, call a trusted friend and quietly express yourself. Once you’ve regained your composure, you can walk back in and fully participate.
  6. Ask a lot of questions
    Find someone you’d like to know more about, think of questions to ask them and when you get there, make sure you do. Maybe your niece has just started art school or your mother-in-law knits. Just knowing you have a plan to talk with someone will ease your anxiety going in – and they’ll love the attention.


Use Your Wise Mind

Our last strategy is about perspective: Don’t get overwhelmed by events. Be aware of what is going on, and stay true to yourself. Remember, you are your center. If you eat too much, you may be sorry later. Drink too much and you may say things you regret. Enjoy, but be in the present moment. Practice the mindfulness exercise we discussed in an earlier blog: Pause if you need to, breathe in and out to help regain composure.

Using your Wise Mind also means developing something of a “Teflon Mind.” In other words, let things roll off your back. If the conversation gets political, and it’s a battle of the “reds and the blues”, avoid any heated debates.   Thanksgiving is not a good time to discuss politics from a mental health perspective, especially if there are strongly held positions on both sides.  Change the topic, ask the person a question, or end the conversation.   Remember, the purpose of the holidays is to bring family together, not push them further apart.

DBT teaches people to have meaningful connections with each other, because after all, connections make life meaningful.  Using DBT skills this Thanksgiving can help you gather around the table, build positive memories and have a good time.

Bradley W. Bloom, LCSW, Director of Group Therapy