When family comes together at your household, does it feel more like an experiment than a gathering of love, laughter and respect? We have entered the season when families will gather at their own expanded dining room tables with hopes and fears of what the holiday may bring. The 1943 “Freedom from Want” image by Norman Rockwell portrays blissful, whimsical, almost angelic illustration of a turkey dinner. Unfortunately, this whimsical portrayal fails to depict the reality of most, if not all, families.
More realistic–families are a gathering of unsavory characters trying to find a place to belong. Each imperfect member of the family is trying to balance their individual identity with their desire to connect with others.
Some members feel so insecure and unworthy that they let the group define who they are, smiling on the outside but dreading each moment on the inside.
Others have been so hurt by people; they have little desire to connect. Their anger, resentments, hurts and disappointments can trigger passive aggressive jokes, or worse, caustic and mean spirited comments and remarks. The perfect turkey dinner can deteriorate into a blue plate special for the socially impaired.
This holiday, think about your family gathering as a laboratory where you can experiment with healthier habits to both bond with family members and respect their individual differences. After all, each family is as extraordinary as the individuals that make it.
Helpful Hints for a Healthy Family Holiday “Laboratory”
Do unto others…
Be kind. Be nice. Be respectful. Be complimentary. The Golden Rule applies to healthy family systems. It can be used to describe healthy family gatherings. Treating others the way you wish to be treated helps everyone find a place to belong. This holiday season use your family gathering as a laboratory of love, respect and kindness.
The health effects of laughter continue to emerge in research. The ability to humbly laugh at ourselves is admirable and contagious. Don’t laugh at the misfortunes of others. No mean spirited, malicious, hurtful jokes. Instead, share funny stores, funny memories. Use laughter to strengthen ties and build bonds of friendship and love.
Avoid the Blame Game
Remember the family is a system. Interrelated parts make up the whole. No one individual is to blame. The entire system contributes to the growth to the detriment of the family. Too often, one family member gets labeled the problem for the entire clan. Healthier families strive to work together so each individual can find their place. Sometimes more separateness is needed for each member to feel safe enough connect with one another.
Use Your “NO” Muscle
Setting a boundary is crucial to family harmony. When boundaries are not heard or respected, the family is weakened. Boundaries keep bonding safe. Intimacy demands openness, vulnerability and risk. This vulnerability can hurt which is why we are afraid to be real. Because this risk hurts, each member has to have the freedom to say no.
Competitive games can build on each member’s strengths and weaknesses. Cooperative games with no one winner can help build a spirit of collaboration. Alliance, coalition, participation and partnership are important themes when planning holiday activities. Each family member, no matter how small, can have a role in the family fun and growth.
Take Small Steps
Be realistic with family expectations. Change can be slow and incremental. But even the smallest changes can have large impact on the overall outcome.
In the end, the secret to a successful family holiday celebration is enough connection without feeling oppressed by too much togetherness; and enough separateness without feeling rejected by too much isolation.
Dr. Ronald J. De Vries, PhD is a Fully Licensed Psychologist working at the Pine Rest Kalamazoo Clinic. He completed his internship training at the Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center Outpatient Clinic approved by the American Psychological Association. Dr. DeVries earned his Bachelor in Psychology from Calvin College. He earned both his Master in Theology and his Doctoral in Clinical Psychology from Fuller Theological Seminary.
He works with adults and adolescents. His primary areas of expertise include depression (mood disorders), anxiety disorders, relationship issues, grief and loss, forgiveness, shame and guilt, recovery issues related to substance abuse, and adoption/foster families.