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Ask Dr. Zoe – Family Pressure During the Holidays

‘Tired of the Holiday Expectations’ Asked:

My parents put a lot of pressure on my siblings and my family to spend time together for the holidays, Christmas specifically. I love my parents and enjoy spending time with them, but their expectations of what they want Christmas to look and feel like becomes stressful. They want “a full day” of us all at their home—sometimes suggesting we spend the night the evening before and having the celebration last until it’s dark the next night so we can enjoy the lights together. They say that they are flexible in the fact that they don’t mind if it’s not actually Christmas or Christmas Eve, but even so, it’s difficult to coordinate that amount of time among so many people. My siblings and I are married with our own families now, and it’s not easy to work out with our children’s needs and schedules plus some of our jobs require us working during the holiday season and at differing times. Once we’re there, my parents make a big to-do about the meal, activities, and flow of the day, and inevitably they’re not satisfied with the outcome. I always feel like we’re letting them down to one degree or another and it’s honestly draining and takes a lot of joy out of the season. I’ve tried a few different things over the years to set boundaries and communicate the stress in a kind way, but could use any advice you have! Thank you!

Dr. Zoe Answered:

It never ceases to amaze me how much the holidays trigger family issues. Whenever someone says they have tried to set boundaries, but it didn’t work, they are leaving out the very important fact that they didn’t keep or maintain the boundary. Any boundary, properly erected and maintained will work, unless you are dealing with a sociopath—which you aren’t.

So, I’m going to ask you to set some boundaries again. But first, let’s make sure you are clear about the dynamic that is going on in your family.

Your parents have issues. Yes, that’s what I said. And you and your siblings are playing your parts in their well-scripted play, which is enabling them and stunting their growth. Yes, even parents have to grow and mature through the seasons of their lives.

As a mom whose nest is beginning to empty, I get the pain of having to face the fact that your nuclear family is changing. There is grief involved in this process and sometimes we humans try to delay grief with denial.

Your parents are choosing to deny the fact that it is not feasible or realistic to re-create or spend every Christmas Eve and all day Christmas with your extended family together like you did when you were children.

And it’s clearly not working. That’s why your parents are left disappointed every year. They are trying to re-create something that doesn’t exist anymore.

It seems obvious to me that your parents love and care for you, which means that even though they may be upset and may need a cooling off period, your relationship will not be forever damaged by your setting healthy boundaries.

You and your husband need to sit down and decide what feels good, healthy, and workable when it comes to spending Christmas with your family this year and into the future. Make sure you are both being as honest with each other as you can in this decision-making process. You might want to thank your hubby for going along with your parents’ program these past years. That man is a keeper!

Then you have to do the dirty work of sitting down with your parents, letting them know how much you love them and appreciate their efforts over the years to make Christmas wonderful for you and your siblings. Tell them that because your family is changing and growing, you won’t be able to do Christmas the same way that you have been doing it with them anymore.

Outline for them how you plan to celebrate Christmas with them and how much you are looking forward to creating wonderful Christmas memories with them and your children in the years to come.

Understand and expect that they will be disappointed and hurt. Give them their space and time to deal with it. It’s theirs to deal with, not yours.

Just because you can’t all sleep in your beds and wake up to Christmas morning like you did when you were kids doesn’t mean that you can’t all still enjoy Christmas as a family in some new way.

I applaud you for trying to honor your parents by having your whole family bend over backward to please them, but there can be a fine line between honoring and co-dependency in a relationship.

You’ve got this! It just takes a little grit and grace. Have a wonderful Christmas!

Dr. Zoe


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Dr. Zoe is a licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert who recently jumped out of a perfectly good plane just for the experience.

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