As you anticipate the approaching holiday season and old memories come to mind, you may get a sense of, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Family interaction that starts out joyous may shift very quickly to a stressful experience as it can bring up old stressors within the family system.

When growing up in the family home, each family member develops thought and behavior patterns that eventually characterize their relationships and become their family dynamics. Later on in life, as circumstances trigger response patterns, parents may, unconsciously, become intrusive or critical. The mother, for example, may complain about her daughter’s weight, her son’s drinking or his lack of success because he followed a career path that was different from what she and his father had envisioned for him. Parents may find fault with how their adult children are raising their grandchildren. In turn, adult couples may decide to spend Christmas away instead of with family. Or, they may encounter a tug of war between spending time with the husband’s or wife’s family.

A study by the American Psychological Association (APA) illustrated that people are likely to feel increased stress rather than decreased stress during the holidays. The study found:

  • 61 percent of people surveyed associated the holidays with stress
  • 68 percent mentioned fatigue

Yet, the same study also found:

  • 78 percent experienced feelings of happiness
  • 75 percent associated love with the holidays
  • 60 percent experienced high spirits

The question arises as to how can you survive a Thanksgiving dinner or the Holiday season without regressing to the 10 year old you once were, living in your parents’ home? You want to feel grateful on Thanksgiving Day, and as December approaches, you want to maintain a balance between the spirit and focus of the holiday versus the “exciting commercial aspects” of Christmas. What you may not want to do is find yourself resorting to the protective defenses you used as a child or to soothe yourself with food, alcohol or other mechanisms which leave you feeling more off-course than before.

Over the years, I have heard a number of patients talk about some of the negative things that took place either with a parent or a sibling during a family visit. Yet, they chose to refrain from saying anything during their stay because they would be leaving the next day and didn’t want to stir the pot so to speak. Fast forward five years later, they are still talking about the same thing having never fully resolved the issue.

Psychotherapy can help you find your voice while setting healthy limits that lead to better communication and improved family relationships. By working with a therapist, you do not have to manage this alone. Approaches used in therapy can help bring closure by identifying and changing the patterns that interfere with your well-being.

Susan Whedbee is a NYC psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Manhattan.