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Getting Through the Holidays With Your Complicated Family

The holidays can be a stressful time for anyone: spending lots of time with extended family, traveling, dealing with childhood memories, feeling the tug of a sudden increase in obligations. But it can be especially stressful for teens whose families aren’t traditional, or who have a tense relationship with their family. Remember: families come in all shapes and sizes, and none are perfect. You may live with your grandmother, or have only one parent in your life, or feel like your parents don’t respect you. If you’re struggling with complicated feelings about family during the holidays, here are some ways to cope.

Before any holiday events, think about what family means to you. Unconditional love? Tough compromise? Coming together in community even when you have major differences? Keep in mind that not everyone shares your definition. Your uncle may view family in a completely different way, and therefore have different expectations of his family members. And that’s ok. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

Try to not take things personally. Listen to what others say, and validate their view. That does NOT mean you have to agree with them. Try using phrases like, “I can tell you care a lot about that subject,” or “I hear you saying…” This can help avoid tense arguments. Remember that it’s not your job to change your relatives’ minds.

It’s easy to go into a family gathering anticipating that old wounds will be re-opened. But this will usually just leave you feeling defensive and rejected, and set the tone for the rest of your day. It’s ok to feel this way, and your emotions are always valid. But your family’s holiday gathering is not the time or place for a confrontation. Instead, acknowledge these feelings beforehand, and come up with a plan to deal with them.

Plan ahead. If a particular person in your family tends to bring up sensitive subjects or causes you stress, plan to not sit next to them. Plan to leave after an hour or two, instead of feeling obligated to stay for the whole event. Think about what you’ll say when sensitive subjects like politics come up, or if someone comments on your identity in any way. This way, you can feel confident and prepared rather than caught off guard. If certain topics of conversation are triggering, don’t feel like you need to stick around for them. Use that time to take a bathroom break, make a phone call, step outside or volunteer to wash the dishes.

Think of ways to relieve stress during the gathering. Wear a favorite shirt or an outfit that makes you feel good. Take a stress ball, or put a stone in your pocket that you can touch whenever you start to feel anxious.

If possible, talk to your parents or guardians beforehand. If they’re your ride to the event, you may depend on them to leave at a certain time. Be honest. Try explaining to them that this holiday season, you want to make time for everyone important in your life, which includes friends as well as family. Be prepared to compromise, and make sure you validate their feelings.

If you don’t feel connected to your family, concentrate on your connections with your friends or other people who are important to you. You may feel pressure to act like your family is picture-perfect, but that’s holding yourself to unreasonable standards. No one’s family is perfect. Every family has people with dissenting political beliefs, old conflicts that don’t seem to go away, or a black sheep. Don’t compare your family to TV families. Instead, focus on the people who love and support you—whether or not they’re related by blood.

But most importantly, remember to love yourself, and to be a friend to yourself. Even if you don’t fit in with your family, or you feel like they don’t respect you, you are enough. You are special in your own unique way, so don’t feel bad about being who you are. Feel proud.

If you’ve been struggling with complicated family relationships for a while, are not sure how to communicate with your parents, or don’t feel supported at home, talk to someone. A therapist can help you worth through your feelings and develop communication strategies. If you’re 10-22 years old and live near NYC, stop by Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center for a completely free and confidential appointment with a mental health professional.

Tiffanie Brown, LCSW is a clinical social worker at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. She has been working with marginalized and underserved adolescents for 6 years.  Ms. Brown has received intensive training in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and specializes in work with individuals who are emotionally dysregulated and engage in self-harm and high risks behaviors. Ms. Brown provides ongoing individual, group, and family therapy to the adolescent population, using a combination of CBT and psychodynamic approach.

The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.

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