Dec 2013

If you’re worried about your family driving you nuts.

I’m currently in NYC with Jonathan soaking up the Christmas cheer.  It’s so funny, when I left NYC, I had a dream that I would always return to Manhattan around Christmas time to get my “fix”. I love SF, but when it comes to doing Christmas, it can’t hold a candle to Manhattan.  With Jonathan’s limited vacation schedule this seemed like a pipe dream, but I know that when it comes to manifesting, I don’t need to worry about the “how”, I just need to ask.  And I am so happy to report that Jonathan and I are spending our third year in a row here in NYC during the Christmas season, making that a clean sweep since our move.  Incredible.  I’m so grateful.

Tomorrow we’re heading up to my parents’ house in Boston for the week, and I couldn’t be more excited.  My family is the best.  It’s easy to be at home, there are no unspoken expectations, Jonathan and I get plenty of space, and it’s always a relaxing time.  This is mostly because I got lucky, and partially because I follow certain strategies that I’m going to walk you through below.

Now, I know that for some people spending time with our families over the holidays can be the perfect example of “too much of a good thing”.

Obviously, most of us look forward to spending time with our families, but when we’ve hit our limit, things can go sour fast.  And sometimes having a few tough days after what was overall a great visit, can ruin our vacation, making us resentful, anxious and unrested.

Today, we’re starting a new series called “Throwback Thursday”, an opportunity to share with you some of my best stuff that you may have missed in years past.  This week I want to revisit the six strategies for getting the most out of your family time, especially if they usually push your buttons.  These strategies were originally posted on Your Bella LIfe, and I knew you would benefit by me bringing them back.

1. Don’t be afraid to do what’s best for you.  What’s best for you is best for everyone. If you can create boundaries and set expectations that work for you, it’s going to have an overall positive effect on your vacation.  Think of it this way, if your Mom wants you to be home for a whole week, but you know that you’ll be bickering the last few days, it could ruin the whole vacation. But, if you tell her you can only stay for three days, you may initially hurt her feelings, but she’ll appreciate the quality of your visit over the quantity.

2. Adjust the length of your stay.  See #1.

3. Get some alone time.  If the place you’re staying with your family is particularly small and having no privacy makes you miserable, whether it’s your apartment or your childhood home, consider getting a hotel room, or asking your parents to stay in a hotel if they’re visiting you.  I know that may seem drastic, but again, this is your vacation, and if you leave feeling more tired than when you arrived, you’re going to be a resentful bitch, and no fun to be around. If you can’t afford a separate place to stay, go for a walk alone every day, or plan dinner out with a friend.

4. Set expectations. My family is a master at this.  My parents always send us the plans for our time together weeks in advance and ask us what we’d like to participate in, and ask us if we’ve made plans outside the family.  This alleviates pressure, and when we arrive at home there are no surprises. If this isn’t something your family does, it would be a great idea to have an honest conversation with your parents about their plans, what’s most important to them and what’s flexible.

5. Ditch the “adults”.  If you spend the holidays with your siblings and/or cousins, plan a night without the older generation.  Go out or play board games.  Having the opportunity to connect with those people in your life is so rare and is a total blast.  Not only will this shake up your schedule, but it will just maybe give you the chance to vent.

6. Plan an event for everyone.  When we spend time with our parents, it’s easy for us to just fall in line, but then we complain that they’re “making us do things.” Ditch the passive aggression and offer to plan dinner one night or an activity during the day.  Not only will it be great for everyone to experience what your life is like on a daily basis, you’ll be able to eat what you want, or do something you enjoy.

I know a lot of this feels extreme, and I know you don’t love to rock the boat.  But just think about how much happier YOU and everyone else is going to be after spending the holidays together.  The goal here is to leave your time with you family feeling fulfilled and loved with a slight craving for more.

Why this is important:  When we are in a space of feeling depleted, suffocated or annoyed while we’re home, we are GUARANTEED to go nuts on the Christmas cookies.  All of the sweets around become our only escape from the chaos.  It won’t be until you get a real emotional, and physical escape will you be able to stop at 2 cookies or a glass of eggnog.  Willpower is not coming home with you.

In the comments below, I want to know:

1. What are you most nervous about when it comes to spending the holidays with your family?

2. Which of these strategies are you going to use to make the situation better?

I can’t wait to hear from you,



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  • Thanks, this came at the perfect time as we leave today for a few days with the in-laws! This year I was firm and said we will stay for a few days before Christmas but we are coming home for the actual holiday. My MIL still seems a bit put out by it but I am so much happier! I’m going to plan an event for everyone and make an effort to set expectations more clearly in the future. 🙂

  • Sandy

    This is really a two way street. I love having our adult children and the grandchildren come but after about three days I am craving my routine and an organized house. I have some thoughts for adult kids:
    1. Help with the meals, the house, keeping the kids clutter picked up through the day.
    2. Load the dishwasher, unload the dishwasher, clear the table.
    3. You know you are getting tired of us so keep it short a week is great, two weeks makes us all crazy but I’m not going to ask you to take the kids and go home so please set your boundaries.

    Now for what I do:
    1. Keep up my workout routine – I go to fitness class, I go to yoga, I take my walk every morning. Mornings are my workout time and as much as I love having y’all here I need this time away.
    2. I do all of the grocery shopping and try to buy everyone’s favorites and keep all the baking supplies in stock so you can be creative and have fun in my kitchen.
    3. Only eat the goodies when they are hot out of the oven. My daughter and d-i-l seem to have a competitive streak when it comes to baking and so there are always too many goodies.
    4. I would love to sit and play with the kids so feel free to take a break, go for a walk, go on a date, just let Papa and I enjoy them.

  • Hi Sarah! Well-timed!

    I’m taking my man home to meet my family — I’ve been hanging out with his family for over a year, but I’ve been avoiding the cross-country trip to California to meet my clan. But… I think I’ve got this covered this year—

    Instead of just hanging out staring at each other across my parents’ living room, I’ve planned a day of wine tasting where he can meet everyone (the ‘rents, the sisters, the niece, the nephews) and we’ll be busy with “the activity” so it won’t be so… AWKWARD. 😉

    We also have the alone time covered too — we’re NOT staying with family! That’s key!! I like to get away to sleep elsewhere.

    I may need a little help with “setting expectations” though. :]

    Thanks, Sarah. And Merry Christmas!! x

  • Shari Thompson

    Sarah, this is the best list of a mentally and emotionally healthy family visit that I have ever seen. I love the “planning ahead” suggestion and want to start doing this. My family just “goes with the flow” with some general idea of we will eat “sometime.” This makes my husband really anxious because he needs to know the plan. It also leaves out some real connection time. Thanks for your suggestions!

  • Ashley

    Happy Holidays Sarah!

    I love these tips. Being from a household of 3 other siblings each with their own sets of children, makes for a VERY chaotic gathering around the holiday’s. Quite frankly ANY time we get together as a family it is a bit loud and obnoxious. I usually can’t get in my car fast enough and breathe a sigh of relief.

    I am nervous about not only having all the siblings and spouses around is crazy enough, but adding to the mixture all the kids will generate even more tension and feelings of annoyance (parents screaming, whining, etc. – oh wait I mean kids screaming, whining, …lol).

    Who can blame them, it is an exciting time of year, but the parent’s nervs can get a little frazzled and unknowingly lash out at the nearest adult family members. Hopefully trying to implement tip #5 will help in this area. I’m hoping us adults find an opportunity to leave the little one’s at home supervised by the grandparents (YEAH) and have our own adult-time where we can all keep our sanity in check.

    Thanks for sharing these and have a wonderful holiday celebration!


  • I love this Sarah!

    I’m very happy to say I’ve already done 1 and 2 – it was hard but once I knew it was what’s best it was actually really easy and my parents are respecting my needs! Total win!!!

    I also have a game plan for space and a plan to cook one day.

    I’m a little worried about the amount of drinking that goes on – if it becomes too much than we have a plan to get a hotel room.

    All in all I’m excited to see how this trip goes now that I’m coming from a place of empowerment instead of being passive and angry.

    Happy holidays!

    Ashley xo

  • This is so great, Sarah!! Thanks for such a timely blog post. I definitely struggle with this too. When everyone else has expectations of you, it’s hard to not feel selfish for setting some boundaries for yourselves. But, you’re right – if you set the proper boundaries everyone will have a better time!

    We’re sill working on making our own traditions in the midst of the family traditions, but we are trying to build in some time and space for my husband in me when we’re with all the families. I think I’ll talk with him about it tonight to make sure we can make it happen!

  • Catherine

    Very timely post as I’m leaving for vacation tonight! (First a pit stop in SF, then to Chicago for the family.)

    So, I tend internalize all of the familial stress. I don’t know what the backstory is or why there’s this rift, but it’s my other siblings against my dad. My siblings have pressured me to join their faction, but I don’t want to “pick sides” with my family. And lemme tell you: being the familial Switzerland is FUCKING HARD. Last year I was so unhappy with all the negative energy that I got blackout drunk. At Christmas. I missed dinner because I was upstairs sick. And Christmas is a big affair in my family where we have a couple of other families over for the dinner. Yeeeerp, not my finest moment.

    This year, I’m going to pace myself with the drinks (won’t go alcohol shopping for myself beforehand, that’s a good start) 😉 and will focus on spending time one person at a time with people whom I haven’t seen in a while. I fully intend to laugh at how I didn’t handle myself so well last year. I also know that I’m just a much happier person in general as opposed to a year ago and I’m relying on that to carry me through.

    Merry merry!

  • Anne A.

    These are great….and my life is feeling a little more bella all the time!!
    What Im doing: staying at a hotel (this was established a couple years ago), spending time with friends, establishing a schedule of actiivties which includes plenty of time with friends and time for my son to bond with his grandparents. Going to yoga, the gym and to get a massage and visiting my favorite restaurant

    What Im NOT doing: Worrying about what my dad thinks (and/or says) about what I eat at his table. Spending more time with my folks than makes me comfortable simply bc my innter mean girl says I “should”. Judging the love my family shares bc it doesnt look like the families who spend endless hours together, etc.

  • Caroline

    My family is notoriously toxic. The only way they talk to each other (and my husband and I) is through passive-aggressiveness and guilt. My husband seems to have this shield that deflects ALL passive-aggressiveness, and I’m trying to learn his tricks. In the meantime, my way of dealing has been to run for those cookies (and pies and cakes). I have tried (and will try) some of your suggestions (I, too, need help with “setting expectations”), but it’s hard because my family then uses guilt to make me feel bad for “not spending more time with them, especially at the holidays.” Do you have a suggestion for how to handle that?

    • Tiffany

      In a move towards #2, this year I offered to sleep in the garage! 🙂 It gives me alone time with my man and helps crate more space inside the house for us all. Win-win…

      And for Caroline, on passive-aggressive family strategies. A therapist helped me with this point so I will pass on her suggestions. When we grow up in passive-aggression, we learn early to respond to non-verbal stimuli.and to feel intense guilt if we do not act. This is our adapted normal, even though for others, it seems weird.

      For example, your emotions are struggling to say “I need to stay 3 days” but your head knows what is best for you. Your guilt over the decision is a sign you are actually making a good decision. For others it would be a sign something is wrong with their conscience. Feel the guilt, pause and reflect, then do it anyway!

      Recognise that for you, guilt is an emotion that is maladapted, and use the feeling of guilt as the pause and reflect button. It really helped me. Hope it does you too.

      • Caroline

        Wow, that is excellent advice! Thank you very, very much for passing it on. Now I just have to try to remember it when I start feeling guilty about things.

  • Jenna

    I’m nervous about fighting with my mother.

    Daily walks are going to be my go to and lots of baths.

    I’m also trying to plan a game night type of theme for after Christmas dinner so it’s active and fun.

  • I think #1 and #4 will be my best friends because my husband did not grow up celebrating Xmas and we do everything big in my family! Everything is a celebration!
    Great advices!

  • It’s awesome for me to have a web page, which
    is useful in support of my knowledge. thanks admin

    • Wonderful, Janet! I am so happy this resonates with you and you have a sacred space to visit. Sending you a hug.

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