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It was just after opening his favourite gift, a new skateboard, that 14-year-old Nick Ashton ruined Christmas Day.

He ran up the stairs, jubilant for the upcoming festivities, when he suddenly felt a sharp pain in his foot. Looking down, Ashton saw a cocktail stick embedded halfway into his heel.

"Dad couldn't pull it out, so a trip to the hospital was in order," recalled Ashton, now 26. "We waited there for what seemed a lifetime and missed out on the entire day. "

Ashton's experience may have been unlucky, but a tumultuous holiday season is common in more ways than one.

Clinical psychologist Michelle Lucci explained that we put pressure on ourselves and each other to have an idyllic Christmas. This makes the cocktail- stick-in-foot incident more unfortunate than if it happened on an ordinary afternoon.

Striving for perfection can also lead to arguments and tensions that spoil the holidays, or make them less enjoyable.

One area of contention is when some family members hold on to traditions while others try to establish new ones. This type of conflict usually occurs with life changes such as marriage, parenthood or divorce, said Mark Laing, a therapist at Hamilton's Bayridge Counselling Centre.

"People often take out their frustrations on an event," said Laing. "For example, a mother is incredibly upset with her son who is for the first time missing Christmas morning because he's with his in-laws.

Arguing at Christmas can be hard to avoid.

Clinical Psychologist Michelle Lucci (left) works with her client Rosa to ease stresses and create a healthy and happy holiday season.

"What's really going on here is she fears she's losing her role as a parent, which makes her feel powerless and vulnerable."

To solve the conflict, Laing recommends both parties try reading between the lines to figure out the deeper issues. Then they need to have an understanding conversation before they'll find resolution.

"Family members want to feel that they're heard and what's important to them is respected," Laing said.

He recalled one Christmas as a newlywed when he and his wife went to his parents, then her parents, then back to his parents. At the end of the night, he fell into bed exhausted.

"Never again," he said. "It was just too much, so from then we alternated each year who we spent Christmas with."

Once you've established what's best for you, stay assertive and firm in your decision. "Saying yes all the time causes resentment, which is harmful to you and your relationships in the long term," Laing said.

Multiculturalism is another factor influencing traditions.

"I am from an Italian-Catholic family," Lucci said, "but our Christmas table is also full of Sikhs and Muslims. We sit together and have a fabulous day."

Lucci said that celebrating with people of different cultures and traditions can be worrisome for some of her clients who are fearful their traditions won't be honoured or respected.

 

"These families need to acknowledge there are differences in their belief systems and look for similarities. For instance, a Sikh-Indian family and Catholic-Italian family come together beautifully on issues of family and food. That makes the holidays easy."

Holiday gatherings bring together different personalities — introverts and extroverts — plus a layer of personal issues. Some family members could suffer from depression, trauma or other mental illnesses.

"Now you're expected to be social and interested and navigate potentially dramatic situations you spend most of the year avoiding," said Lucci. "It isn't easy."

To make the holiday season smoother, she said, people need to prepare year round, starting with self-care. Eating well, exercising and relaxing makes it easier for people to step into stressful situations and adjust.

When a conflict erupts, decide if it's a battle or a war. If it's a battle, consider setting aside the issue for the day. If it's a war, try to sort it out beforehand and, if that doesn't work, reassess the boundaries you've set for yourself.

Laing said it may be best to stay away from a gathering or person especially if he or she is toxic.

"I think being flexible and adaptable is one of the greatest strengths to have when the holiday season comes around," Lucci said.

Special to The Hamilton Spectator 2014/12/24

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