Double Take: Some advice for a successful family gathering

Dr. Wes: The holidays are here, the kids are home from college or high school and the spirit of the season is everywhere. Family members mend their relationships and start another year with new, thoughtful resolutions. Everyone joins hands and sings around the tree in perfect harmony …

If that doesn’t sound like Christmas at your home, don’t worry. You’re not alone. Where teens and young adults are concerned, and really for most of us, the holidays can be a bit stressful.

Why? Because we pile up a lot of expectations on one another and then get disappointed when they go unfulfilled.

Now, before readers claim I’m full of humbug, let me offer some tips for keeping things on an even keel.

• Simple is the opposite of stressful. The more formal the holiday gathering, the more chance for frustration.

• People and circumstances change, especially in the 15 to 25 age range. So what was meaningful over the holidays last year may not appeal to your kids now. Traditions have a very short shelf life for teens. Try to be flexible.

• Parents and children have competing interests. Parents lean toward family closeness, knowing that it will not be long before kids are out building their own families. Young people see the holidays as a time to relax and hang out with friends, to gather energy for the next semester. Parents may ask for a balance of both, while remembering that forcing anyone into a certain vision of holiday cheer isn’t, well, cheerful.

• Do NOT under any circumstances use holiday gatherings to process your family dysfunctions, especially across generations. If you have issues with your parents, or your kids, or the family cat, or anyone else, now is not the time to make amends or expect them to be made. Therapists are standing by 50 weeks out of the year to help fix families. Make reconciliation a New Year’s resolution rather than a Christmas dinner sidebar.

• Remember the point of the season: to express appreciation and love for one another. Parents should give freely of this gift to their children and expect little in immediate return. In future holidays, that will be paid back as teens turn into adults and begin to realize how much they miss these sorts of things. In this, as in all things related to parenting, patience is a virtue.

Katie: In my family, most of the sentimental holiday tears are shed on the last day of the family vacation — after we’ve haggled over who gets stuck with the Tupperware containers of leftover mashed potatoes.

If only we could always love our families as much as we do when we hug and say goodbye.

In truth, it’s not our love that changes as the holidays push us together, but our ability to express that love in uncomfortably packed quarters. With cooking, cleaning, entertaining and traveling at the top of the agenda, stress often wells up long before the guests pull into the driveway.

Stepping in with a good mood and an open mind can get the gathering off to a better start. So I’ll add my tips for a successful family holiday:

• Remember that family get-togethers are a test of one’s self-control, from moderating alcohol intake to biting one’s tongue to avoid conflict. It’s often necessary to hide irritation behind a convincing smile, though that may make your facial muscles sore when Aunt Ann suggests you think about your thighs instead of grabbing seconds at dinner.

• Before starting an argument over a small nuisance or tactless comment, ask yourself if it’s really worth the headache of a family feud. Family members don’t usually mean to offend. Even Aunt Ann thinks she’s being helpful.

• True helpfulness may involve giving loved ones a break from life’s trouble and tedium for a few days. During the holiday respite, unsolicited advice about lifestyle choices, career plans and parenting skills are usually better intended than well received.

• As we said a few weeks ago, steer clear of topics that raise angry voices. Even in the closest families, its best to have a game of Taboo on hand in case anyone mentions the words “Obamacare,” “abortion” or “fiscal cliff.”

• You influence the mood of the vacation as much as any other individual, so have fun this holiday season. And regardless of Aunt Ann’s advice, feel free to have seconds.

— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Teens” and “Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens.” Katie Guyot is a Free State High School senior. Send your confidential 200-word question on adolescence and parenting to


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