The holiday season can evoke feelings of sipping warm drinks by the fire, reuniting with loved ones and opening gifts. But for families who already juggle a lot of responsibilities throughout the year, the holiday season can also bring an added layer of anxiety, stress and even depression. In the quest to “do all the things,” people may find their holidays not so merry and bright after all.
What’s the key to avoiding burnout? Setting boundaries.
“Especially around the holidays, there is this desire to go above and beyond to make everybody else happy,” said Heather Warfield, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Calm Waters Center for Children and Families. “We lose a lot of [ourselves] in taking on too much, which can leave us feeling stressed, overwhelmed or burdened. Making sure we are setting boundaries during the holidays can be good for maintaining our mental health and staying positive.”
Boundary setting entails taking ownership of what you can and cannot do and being able to voice that, said Janae Neal, who holds a master’s degree in psychology with an emphasis in applied behavior analysis.
“Identify what you are comfortable with and stick to that,” advised Neal.
Sounds easy enough, but how can we actually put boundary setting into practice? Open and honest communication early on can be the necessary step toward a happy holiday.
Here are some common scenarios many people may encounter this season with tips on managing those conversations.
Be the “hostess with the mostess,” but with boundaries
It can feel great to host grandparents, extended family or friends during the holidays, but having visitors in your home can also throw your normal routine off schedule. All of a sudden, your kids are getting more screen time than you’d typically allow, bedtime has shifted to an unseemly hour and the children are getting late-night treats from grandma. How can parents set boundaries with visitors and still keep the peace?
“Talk with your guests ahead of time so there aren’t any surprises when they arrive,” said Warfield. “Let them know what the schedule is going to look like and why that is in place. Saying why something is important sometimes gets missed in the conversation, but explaining the reasoning can be helpful in making sure the boundary is upheld. Think about what anticipated issues may come up so you can start talking about them.”
The last thing anyone wants during the holidays is hurt feelings, but parents can mitigate this by how they speak to their guests.
“Try to alleviate any kind of messages you think could be misinterpreted, especially if there has been a pattern of someone reacting sensitively or internalizing things,” said Warfield. “For example, someone might get hurt by a boundary and say, ‘You don’t trust me with your kids.’ The parent can respond sensitively and say, ‘I’m not saying this because I don’t trust you.’ Sometimes just speaking that into existence can help you start to overcome those challenges.”
Ultimately, in households with dual parents, whether it is one or both parents having the boundary-setting conversation, Warfield says it is important to use “we” language and demonstrate a united front.
“Saying things like, ‘We believe this is important’ or ‘We are upholding these routines for these reasons’ is essential so that it doesn’t create an enemy and the guest misinterpreting a boundary as, ‘Oh this is happening because so-and-so doesn’t like it,’” said Warfield.
Keep children happy and safe
It’s never too early to start teaching children how to set their own boundaries. On the note of hosting guests, Neal advises parents to allow relationships to develop organically between their children and extended family and friends.
“A lot of times, we try to force things and tell children, ‘Go give this person a hug or kiss,’ which communicates to them that they have to allow someone else to be in control of their body,” explained Neal. “Ensure your child understands what consent means and that they know you will support them if they don’t want to give someone a hug. If a child isn’t comfortable with a person, respect that and make sure they know you support them.”
Warfield also reminds parents to be attuned to each child’s emotional and mental needs.
“Sometimes a lot of togetherness can create challenges, so giving a child space is important,” said Warfield. “Maybe one child is extroverted but another is introverted so you can help set a boundary by saying, ‘Brother or sister needs time alone right now’ and help that child find a quiet place to reset.”
Navigate a tough crowd
Sometimes holiday gatherings inevitably force you to see that one relative who gets under your skin or navigate uneasy conversations you wish weren’t brought up at the Thanksgiving table. Nevertheless, Neal advises focusing on positivity.
“You don’t want to go into a situation with hypothetical stress thinking ‘this will happen and then this will happen’ and all of a sudden you are getting worked up before the event even arrives,” said Neal. “Don’t stress yourself out. But if you know there is a trigger conversation, word or person, be comfortable with excusing yourself and moving away from that room or change the subject if you can’t walk away. You can also consider bringing a friend to the party who makes you feel empowered.”
It’s OK to say no
Maybe your sister hosted a holiday dinner last year, so everyone’s expecting you to host this year. Or everyone loves your pies and anticipates them every year, but you’re just too swamped at work to handle the baking right now. Remember it’s perfectly fine to say no or take on a different responsibility than previous years to maintain your sanity.
“Families can fall into this mentality often of ‘we’ve always done it this way, so it has to be this way again,’” said Warfield. “Making sure you are communicating what you can and cannot do and where you need some help is important. It’s hard to communicate boundaries sometimes because of this desire to please, but the more that’s left unsaid, the more conflict, and sometimes resentment, can arise. Have a conversation early and be open to compromising.”
Holidays during a pandemic
As the coronavirus, and now the Delta variant, continues to loom within communities, individuals may have different comfort levels when it comes to spending time with large groups, even if they are family. Before getting together, Neal suggests families have a conversation to discuss everyone’s comfort level and what they would ideally like.
“If you are the one hosting, maybe send out a family text message and say, ‘This is what I’m comfortable with,’” said Neal. “Or have a family video chat so everyone can talk about what they would like and share ideas, such as meeting outdoors for the get-together instead of indoors.”
Whatever the case may be, Neal reminds readers that COVID will continue even past the holidays.
“There may be disagreements but remind your family and say, ‘We need to respect each other and keep this about the holidays and about family,’” said Neal.
Put yourself first
Regardless of where, or how, you end up setting boundaries this season, both Warfield and Neal agree self-care and reaching out to your support network are essential to preserving mental health.
“Make sure you have someone to de-stress with after the holidays or after you’ve had a hard conversation,” said Warfield.
Neal reminds parents to take a break when needed and enjoy the special moments throughout the holiday season.
“Make sure you actually take the time to sit back and observe what you are doing,” said Neal. “It’s easy to get wrapped up in buying the presents and preparing the food. Ensure you are still taking care of you.”