"It’s pretty clear that family gatherings are a major source of anxiety at holiday time," says Michelene Wasil, a licensed marriage and family therapist. "I’ve found that in my personal experience, and I hear it from many of my clients."
To make holiday travel feel more like an actual holiday, here’s what Wasil and other experts suggest:
Set Boundaries Well Before You Arrive
"It’s a good idea to talk about the things you’re not supposed to talk about before everyone arrives," advises Dr. Gail Saltz, a best-selling author and associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine. "If there are conflicts in the family—sibling rivalries, a brewing fight, old wounds—make a phone call and say ‘Let’s just not talk about this topic when we get together.’ It’s better to be upfront."
"Holidays are notoriously not a good time to hash something out," continues Saltz. "People tend to regress at the holidays to what their original family role is. That can resurrect, not consciously, sibling rivalries and parent-child tensions."
Radio host Dr. Gail Gross, PhD, Ed.D. agrees, but suggests that the participants do the "boundary call" over Facetime or Skype so that they can see body language, which is usually reassuring. "I tell my family 'We’re suspending all judgments and expectations. Leave your troubles at the door. This is a free zone at holiday time'".
Decide on a budget for the get together, in advance
"Money is a very delicate subject so it's important that families are honest about what's comfortable and what isn't," advises psychologist Jeanette Raymond, PhD. “Objections about others paying for one and not another have to be ironed out. Money is often used to buy love, or keep kids quiet. If 'who is paying for what' is spelled out in the first pow-wows, it won't be a problem later on. People can choose what activities they want to fund, what they will bring and what they want to contribute in other ways."
Limit together time
"Oftentimes, conflict can be reduced or avoided if the stay is around or less than four days," says Wasil. "Depending on the level of dysfunction or discomfort, I recommend staying at a hotel near family (even with a close friend, or really, anyplace other than the family home if that is a source of pain). This can lessen the expectations and give the client freedom to escape a potentially toxic situation."
If a shorter trip isn’t in the cards, either because traveling at holiday time is so pricey or because of family expectations, the experts recommend visiting nearby friends, taking a day pass at the gym, and doing other activities that get you away from the "family fishbowl" for a few hours each day.
Take time to decompress after travel and before family time
After battling crowds at the airport and on the highways, family members often arrive exhausted. Dr. Gross feels it’s crucial to have some "me" time before "we" time. "When you’re tired, you’re more likely to be fragile and emotional and you’ll be overproducing cortisol," she notes. "So you need to self-manage stress in whatever way works for you: by meditating, listening to happy music, taking a nap, a hot bath. The simplest stress releaser is just breathing. Take time in your room before you go down to meet the family. Give yourself a few minutes to gather your thoughts, relax and get control of yourself."
Ease up on the booze
Sip slowly, warns Dr. Saltz. “When tensions are high, people drink more to manage that,” she notes. “They become more disinhibited and have bigger blow ups as a result.”
Bring a friend
"Dilute the conflict by bringing along a friend or two," suggests author and relationship expert April Masini. "That can actually be your salvation if family reunions involve family members forgetting company manners because there’s no company around. Bring some and watch your normally cantankerous relatives, snap into line and behave."
Be a good guest
"When you come to someone’s home you’re agreeing to some form of abiding by someone else’s way of doing things," says Dr. Saltz. "Sometimes it can be hard for family members to adapt to their habits to those of the person who is hosting. We tend to defend own ways of doing things by criticizing others and that can be a source of problems. Remember that different doesn’t mean better or worse. Being critical will hurt and put off the person who is hosting you. And if you can’t do that, stay in a hotel."
Simplify the event itself
This isn’t a cooking contest or a celebration of who can put together the most cunning centerpieces. "Don’t cook anything new," recommends Jeff Potter, author of Cooking for Geeks. "If you have an exciting recipe you want to try, practice it once before. That’ll remove a lot of the stress. For the holidays, we often finish the meal with desserts. If you’re not a baker, buy a pie. A store-bought pie is often on par with a home-baked pie."
"At the end of it, it’s about family time not about having the perfect meal," he reminds. "People will remember the experience and the food is only one part of that."
"Family constellations change," says Dr. Saltz. "Family members die or get divorced, some may need extra care, and that can be very sad. So prepare yourself to understand that the holidays may not feel the same say they used to, so you won’t feel a sense of loss but instead will be able to take in the bigger picture, which is that the family endures."
"Focus on what you have, name it, and feel grateful," recommends Raymond. "This starts with valuing the fact there is a family. These actions begin as one family packs for the trip. Each family member shares one thing they value about another family member and it continues as they go down the line to those whom they are visiting. This sets up a welcoming, non-threatening attitude which includes experiencing each other as offering nurturing and worth being around."
Author, minister and life counselor Dr. Lesly Devereaux echoes Raymond’s sentiments. "There are many people in the world who are forced to spend the holidays alone. Imagine sitting in a house, shelter, or hospital with no visitors or family. Instead of looking for the faults in your parent or sibling, look at the good characteristics that others see. Holidays are a time to be joyous and the only person who controls how you feel is you, so focus on happy and enjoy your family!"