Less Drama for the Holidays


The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and celebration. Instead, I know so many people who are completely stressed out at this time of year.


In the next few weeks on my own calendar, I’ve got my usual full-time job responsibilities, Chanukah gifts to purchase and wrap, a Thanksgiving meal to prepare (that takes into account one dairy allergy, one nut and sesame allergy, and the Jewish dietary laws of Kashrut), blog posts to write, clients to coach, and a birthday party to plan.


But the biggest holiday stressor for most people I know isn’t about their to-do lists — it’s about spending time with their own families.


One of the hardest things I’ve had to learn how to do as an adult is to set boundaries with my parents. I’ve had to assert myself and say things that, as a child, I might have been afraid or reluctant to say.


After college, I realized that whenever I visited my parents, I immediately fell into the role of the “child.” Despite being an adult, I regressed to childish behavior and old family patterns.


For example, like my teen-aged self, I became both dependent on and critical of my mother. I was self-conscious around my father and sought his approval. I personalized his sarcastic comments and felt like a little girl in his presence.


Usually, I didn’t look forward to going home for the holidays because the arguments and annoyances from my childhood and adolescence were still there. I felt better about myself as an adult in the “real world,” away from the associations and triggers of home.


At some point (I don’t remember exactly when), I started to consciously view my mom and dad as people, rather than just parents. I stopped believing that everything was about me. So when my mom would do something that, in the past, might have embarrassed me (like acting goofy in public), I was able to de-personalize it. “That’s her behavior,” I told myself. “She gets to behave however she wants.”


I also stopped holding myself responsible for their feelings. For example, one time my dad agreed to meet Marissa and me at a restaurant. We got there first, went in, and sat down at a table. My dad waited for us outside and didn’t think to come inside to look for us. I assumed he would come inside when he got there.


He didn’t have a cell phone at the time, and I grew concerned. When he finally discovered us sitting inside about 30 minutes later, he was furious and he yelled at me. In the past, I would have let his anger torment me. I would have taken it all on as being my fault, but this time I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong.


Although he had been inconvenienced, his reaction seemed disproportionate to the situation, and I knew he was 100% responsible for his own reaction. By shifting my thinking in that moment, I didn’t feel the same guilt or shame that I had experienced as a child whenever my father got mad at me.


When I separate my parents’ behavior from my sense of self, it’s much easier to have adult relationships with them and avoid falling back into unconscious patterns. The more I set clear boundaries for myself, the easier it becomes and not surprisingly, the more I act like an adult, the more they treat me like one.


As a result, the holidays now tend to be relaxed and enjoyable as we set aside our drama and focus instead on what they’re really about – love and togetherness.


Be aware that family patterns take time to change. If you’ve spent the past 30+ years relating to your family in dysfunctional ways, things aren’t likely to transform overnight the minute you decide to change your part of the dance. In fact, things may seem to get worse before they get better. You can read more about that here. Just resolve to stay calm and act like an adult even when you get some resistance.


Keep in mind that setting boundaries for yourself as a parent teaches your kids that they are separate from you, too, and it models how they can set boundaries for themselves now and in the future.


Have you ever noticed yourself regressing when you’re around your parents? What patterns play out? Have you been able to set boundaries with them? If so, what have you done? Please leave a comment below and have a drama-free holiday!


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Showing 2 comments
  • Dana

    Great reminders, Pam! I noticed that I got “stronger” in this regard once I became a parent, as it seemed easier to set boundaries when they related to my child. The most important thing is me being in my most self-aware place while with my family so that I can continue to be a good parent to my daughter. This new-found ability to set a boundary and otherwise remain “adult” has carried over to times my daughter is not present. It is imperfect and requires lots of focus from me! Additionally, I have found that my relationship with my in-laws has helped me practice what it feels like to be in adult relationship with parents. It’s less loaded and so a little easier to stay grounded. Happy holidays!

    • Pam Howard

      Dana – you’re very self-aware! That’s awesome! You make some great points about the boundary-setting carrying over when your daughter’s not there and about your relationship with your in-laws being less “charged,” allowing you to experience an adult relationship with them. Keep up the great work, and happy holidays to you and your family. xoxo

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