For Happier Family Holidays, Recite This: Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys

Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash


Bracing yourself for family visits and family travel over the holidays? Me, too–and I’m prepping my kids as well. Happier family holidays means balancing expectations and planning for, well, pretty much whatever went wrong last year and then some. My tips, below (with my favorite bits highlighted in red).

Know why you’re going Not everything about a family holiday trip might be precisely a dream vacation for parents or teens, but if we hold our reason for going close to the heart (and keep it on mental replay as well), we can diffuse our reaction to many tension-inducing moments before it begins. We’re there to spend time with family and deepen our connections, not to change Uncle Hugh’s political views or convince Great-Aunt Bernice not to buy everyone gender-specific plastic junk.

Remember that you have a choice (of sorts) Here’s a thought exercise: You really do have a choice. You could stay home, or go somewhere else. That choice might make everyone around you unhappy but it’s still a choice. Our kids have a choice too—we don’t want them to make it, but they could flat out refuse to get on the flight or out of the car.

We all have a choice. We feel like we don’t, because people are depending on us—but we do. So we’re choosing to do some things that we might not “want” to do because of those people. When we look at it that way, it can be easier to sit through a little discomfort, a little boredom, the fourth distant family member asking what your favorite class is. You made a choice to be the person you want to be, and that means being right here.

All in, and all out Just as you have a choice, you should also have an out. Planning a few escapes during a family visit (even if it’s just nominating yourself to go get lattes for everyone) can give you a little breathing room and make you more able to be “all in” the rest of the time. For teens, ask them to pick some “all in” time as well. Wouldn’t you trade an hour of your 14-year-old hooked up to her headphones for her having a solid half-hour-long conversation with your mother? A polite and engaged dinner for an evening locked in the guest room with a book? Better to plan for these things with your teens or your partner ahead of time than to argue about them huddled in the laundry room, knowing that your brother-in-law is in the living room making book on who will win.

Accept that not everyone is on the same page It would be lovely if every guest at the holiday table had come in with no baggage and a firm intention to make the day as pleasant as possible for everyone. That probably won’t be the case. Reminding yourself (and sometimes reassuring your kids) that everybody packs their issues up in their suitcases and totes them alongcan help us manage unpleasantness.

Start a conversation Holiday gatherings are better if we’re not all locked into small talk. “How’s work?” “So, do you like school?” “Where are you applying to college?” “Any progress on finding a new job?” Ugh. Grown-ups and teenagers alike can shift the attention away from a dull or sensitive topic with a plan for engaging the speaker elsewhere. Plant some memories with your teens that they can ask about (tell me about the time Aunt Aliza poisoned you with the mushrooms, Uncle Jeff?) or suggest other basics—movies, books, binge-worthy television—for finding common ground.

Not my circus. Not my monkeys. When all else fails, take a step back and look at these crazy people around you (and whisper to your teenager to do the same). You can’t control them. You can’t deny them. Sometimes, you can’t even like them. All you can do is love them, and let them perform their various circus acts while you sit quietly in the peanut gallery, doing your best to stay out of it. If the holidays are good for nothing else, they are good for giving us all a few good stories to tell when the New Year rolls around.

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