NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Let’s face it, the movie “Christmas Vacation” became a pop-culture classic not just because it’s so funny, but because most everyone could see just a little of his own holiday gatherings in the Griswold’s dysfunctional family.

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As the holidays fast approach, nerves around the world are getting frayed as people thinking about having to deal with drunk Uncle Hal or too-critical Grandma Smith.

“The holidays are a trigger even when there isn’t even a toxic environment,” said Christina Steinorth-Powell, a psychotherapist and author in Dallas.

One of the main reasons, Steinorth-Powell said that couples find themselves stressed is trying to please everyone by driving to more than one celebration.

“It gets to be a long day, the kids get cranky, everyone’s had too much to eat, there is friction about the amount of time each gets to spend,” she said. “It’s O.K. to say ‘no’ and it’s O.K. to alternate holidays and even set a holiday at your own home so you can start to establish your own traditions. It might be hard at first, but in time, everyone will come to accept it.”


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Money issues, unresolved spats, expectations to uphold holiday traditions, alcohol, the death of a loved one and breakups and divorce can also be triggers to move a family function into dysfunction, said Tiffany Sanders, a licensed psychologist in Chicago.

“One of the worst cases I heard of was a case in which there was a separation, but the wife was still involved with the family because of the kids," said Sanders. "The husband brought the new girlfriend and it was a prime situation for a fight.”

One of the worst cases of a family dispute Steinorth-Powell has ever heard was when an overly critical mother-in-law kept pursuing her daughter-in-law until a physical altercation broke out. In addition to avoiding known instigators in a family and limiting alcohol, Karen R. Koenig, a licensed psychotherapist in Sarasota, Fla. has these tips:

  • Schedule visits for short periods of time, a few hours or a few days, depending on travel circumstances.
  • Keep your expectations realistic, not too high or low.
  • Identify ahead of time people who will be your allies and those with whom you may have difficulty.
  • Take time for yourself to relax, exercise, get away from family.
  • Develop a mantra if things get rough: This too shall pass, I’ll be home soon, These people can’t hurt me, I’m fine.
  • Schedule in time to connect with friends and share what’s going on to get an outside perspective.
  • Set realistic goals: I’m here to see grandpa, I want to reconnect with sis, I’m doing my duty, etc.
  • Know that everything someone says or does, even if it has your name attached to it, is about them because it comes from their brain and thinking.
  • Don’t try to patch up rough relationships. Instead, be civil but aloof.
  • Hang out as much as people with your most likable, least offensive family members.
  • Check in with yourself often about how you’re feeling, including asking yourself if you’re doing okay and noticing tension in your body.
  • When other adults act like children, be determined to remain an adult.
  • Know your triggers: certain topics or attitudes, particular people or situations and steer conversations to ones that feel safe for you.
  • Know what you will or won’t talk about. Just because someone asks you a question, you don’t have to answer. And, unless someone asks a direction question, you need not respond to statements (e.g., “You look like you’ve gained weight," "Your mom says you still don’t have a job...").

--Written by Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

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