When Holidays Stir Up Tensions and Bad Memories

As life moves forward, there will be times when holidays expose a family’s wounds. If a family member regularly gets unruly during celebrations, other family members may no longer want to attend. If a family member dies, gets divorced, or comes out of the closet, other family members may fight or distance themselves from each other. These are normal reactions. Life isn’t always easy. However, the worst thing to do in response to these events is to cancel a holiday celebration. Even if a holiday is difficult to celebrate, it’s important to come together. How can you be together and deal with the difficulty at hand? How can you come together during hard times and show family members that you still care—even if you disagree with them or think that some aspects of the holiday needs to change?

  • Be honest about your feelings and encourage your kids to express their feelings. Not everyone will have the same reaction to tension and loss. What’s important is to get people talking.
  • Watch for the temptation to do one of the three things: cancel a holiday, drastically change a holiday, or refuse to change anything about the holiday. None of these will work well. Usually it’s best for change to occur very slowly and in small ways. For example, if a grandparent has died, it may still be important to have the holiday celebration at the surviving grandparent’s home—even if it means that everyone chips in to bring the food and set up the tables and place settings.
  • If you’re struggling with a divorce, work hard to make holidays something that kids look forward to rather than to dread. If you’re going through a divorce, you can find helpful advice at Parenting Corner Q&A: Divorce from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • Find a meaningful way to remember or honor the difficulty or loss. Some families light a candle to represent an absent person. Others connect with a family member who is out of state or out of the country by Web cam.

Every family has difficulties, and it can be hard to get together to celebrate during tough times. But it’s important for all family members to spend positive time with each other. Holidays and special occasions are good times to try to put differences behind you and remember that, no matter what you disagree on, you’re still a family.



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