An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

Surviving (and Enjoying) Our Visiting Families

Quicker than you can say, "I burnt the turkey!” your in-laws or other visiting relatives will be at your door, bearing re-gifts, pinching cheeks, raising eyebrows at your parenting skills and testing your goodwill.

Real life rarely matches our Norman Rockwellian imaginings of family togetherness or measures up to our gently revised childhood memories. We end up scrolling through Facebook wondering why our family gatherings don’t look like their families’ lovefests.

“During this season we gravitate toward idealizing our experiences,” says Melissa Allen, D.O., assistant professor of psychiatry at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

Allen, who also is the medical director of UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Center, said that throwing together a dozen (or 50) assorted personalities is already stressful enough. “But in this social media-crazed era, people feel the need to create the perfect Christmas card, buy the perfect clothes for the photo on that perfect card, display the perfect decorations – there is this unreasonable expectation out there that everything has to be ‘Pinterest-worthy’ or it’s a failure.”

This year take a deep breath, take two. The holidays don't last forever. You can survive them, maybe even embrace them. We'll tell you how.

'He's MY husband!' 'But he's OUR son!'

The relationship triangle among your in-laws, your spouse and yourself heightens holiday stress. While you met your spouse, then in-laws as an adult, your spouse's parents raised him from a child, and may still relate to him that way. And, in the presence of his parents, his childhood home, regaled by stories of “remember when…,” he may revert to his younger role. It’s a hard balancing act for the spouse sometimes.

It’s a challenge on your end as well as the newly beloved interloper. “The key here is staying flexible and making the conscious effort to not take things so personally,” Allen recommends. Perhaps you’re not being criticized by your in-laws; perhaps their effusive expressions of affection, cornbread-over-breadcrumb stuffing recipe or vivid discussions of colonoscopies at the dinner table aren’t wrong, just different.

“This is the ideal time to find additional connections outside of your shared family member and strengthen those relationships,” Allen says. “And hard as it may be, try to expand your perspective to include — or at least understand — theirs.”

Above all, remembering why you fell in love with their “child” may provide the peace you search for. After all, generations of influence helped chisel your spouse. Thanking them silently – or loud and proud – might be just the shift in perception that brings newfound gratitude to this holiday season.

‘When did Gramma get SO OLD?’

Time freezes when it comes to parents and grandparents. They were larger than life, world-class listeners, marathon runners, front-lawn quarterbacks who read Beowulf and performed neurosurgery! Now, they may be fragile, disconnected shadows of themselves. You search their faces for the Mom or Grampa you hold in your memory. It hurts. You may even feel a childish sense of betrayal or even fear. You may resent their declining hearing, cognition, and incessant tales of medical woe, which only brings guilt nipping at your heels.

“We turn around and somehow our parents or grandparents seemed to have aged overnight,” says geriatrician Carmel Dyer, M.D., executive director of the UTHealth Consortium on Aging. “Some of us are still rearing our own kids right when our parents or grandparents need us the most – or when we need them the most.”

Instead of focusing on what you’ve lost, Dyer says, “meet them where they are. Maybe it’s time to capture that story or unearth that family recipe. Engage the family ahead of time to draw out the rich lives of your elder relatives, and do it while your children are young enough to be spellbound.”

If your aging loved ones are experiencing dementia, it can be a challenge for everyone during the holidays. “So, take control of the narrative,” Dyer says. “Rather than quiz them about past memories, you be the one to start the story by reminiscing about that crazy winter, that funny neighbor or how well they took care of you as children. And then remember to thank them for that memory and for caring for you so well.”

For younger kids who haven’t seen their elder relatives in a while, show them photos so that they are accustomed to any changes in appearance since their last visit, Dyer and Allen both suggest.

Take control of the relationship in positive ways. “Ask everyone to bring old pictures or something from their youth. Make a collage or team up with the youngsters and play bingo. Take an active role in bringing forth old – and making new – memories of joy,” Dyer says.

‘But they’re not family!’

Dad’s new wife is not your mother, and never will be. Mom’s new husband acts like you don’t exist. And worst of all, you now have four Thanksgivings, three Christmases and a Chanukah party to attend. You find yourself becoming a sullen, immature, rebellious teen. At 40.

“It’s all about communication,” Allen says. “Before the holidays, have a gentle but frank conversation that sets not only boundaries, but expectations. Then stick to the plan.” Allen says to make sure that all parties know ahead of time (and have time to accept) who’s going where for what dinner or tree-trimming. Flexibility has to work two ways, both on the part of the hosts and the invited family.

Prepare small children for the upcoming schedule. Comments about ex-parents, new spouses, step-siblings seep into small ears, so censor your thoughts, sighs and eye-rolls if they are less than generous. For adult children, hold on to the fact that your remarried parents have found happiness. The best gift you can give them is your adult support.

“Holidays are about the celebration of family, so keep the focus there,” Allen says. “Otherwise, it becomes a competition that nobody truly wins.”

Heading off trouble

While you may love spending time with your out-of-town family, spending several days is another story. Your den is now their bedroom and your iPhone X now has something sticky all over it.

"It can be stressful having people in your home who aren't usually there," Allen says. "They have different habits that may irritate you and vice versa. But, it may be helpful to remember that your guests are not on their home turf and therefore are doubly on edge, even if they are surrounded by those they love.”

Before you get the guest room ready, sit down with your partner and plan what you can do to alleviate some of the hot buttons of the visit: heated political discussions, cultural differences, vegan versus pro-GMO, infant-sleep training, or the headliner, the really-really right way to carve the turkey. Talking through the potholes and having diversion techniques planned in advance can head off problems.

Find out beforehand how much sight-seeing or downtime your guests really wish to have. And, query your partner just how much help you truly can expect from partner and family. You may not get the answer you want, but you’ll be prepared.

And, most important, plan space and time for yourself. Don’t assume that you need to entertain constantly. Everyone needs a break. Your parents may enjoy taking your children to a movie without you. Or, your husband and his parents may enjoy the museum saunter that you have no desire to attend. No problem.

If family togetherness gets too much, do a quick errand or start your 10,000-step program. Like now. You'll return refreshed and tolerant.

Decide to enjoy Uncle Frank’s yearly retelling of how he came this close to inventing the Cloud. Have an action plan for the bragster sister whose children went to genome-mapping camp. In other words, you as the host/hostess, always sit in the power seat and you get to decide when it’s time to break out a game of Pictionary to shift the focus. And if you think an extra glass of wine or three will help, think twice. It may loosen things up, but it can turn on you.

Don't be a grinch

The holiday mantra for everyone is humor, heart, focus and flexibility, Allen says.

If you can stay above the fray, your own family drama can equal the entertainment value of any binge-worthy Netflix series. So sit back and just enjoy the show without engaging.

When all else fails, dig a little deeper to find that holiday spirit. “Remember why you gather in the first place, whether it is to honor the particular religious holiday or to share time with loved ones,” Allen says.

Remember that your aging parents were once young, harried parents just trying to stir gravy, wrap presents, give you a sweet holiday memory and please their own visiting parents. “It’s all in the perspective you choose to use,” Allen says.

Remind yourself that you have your in-laws to thank for giving you the best gift of all: the love of your life.

And, this year, try not to fall into the pressure cooker of holiday madness, advised Allen, who also is a wife, mother, daughter and daughter-in-law—and recent Hurricane Harvey-displaced flood victim. “There’s just so much build-up and pressure to create the perfect memory or at least the perfect Instagram post that we’re missing the moment. This year let’s ditch the perfect and just be present.”

Above all, remember to give yourself a pat on the back for adding one more stitch to the family tapestry by bringing your humor, paying attention and meeting each family member “where they are.”

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