How to Deal With Family Stress . . .

You never have an unkind word spoken at your holiday table or someone stalking away from the dining room screaming, do you?

Family dynamics, what was God thinking?

Do holidays with family remind you of a hamster wheel?

Here in traditional New England, we gather in many of the same ways every year. It’s sort of like the movie Groundhog Day where you know who:

  • will arrive late
  • get mad at what
  • or pull a no-show

How do you deal with family stress?

Rather than ratting anyone out, I’ll confess my bad. As I rushed through my almighty to-do list the other day, I was good until Dad wanted to add to the list.

Without driving privileges, I’m his ride. Since we “stole” his independence, I think he feels we owe him.

There we were rushing down the highway, puttering through more stores than I’d made time for until I lost it. I don’t do that in front of friends, and I’m embarrassed to admit it, but screaming is normal behavior in my family.

Related Post: How To Find Peace with God When You Just Want to Scream

Believe it or not, I have a counseling degree in seminary.

One of the ways we learned to help others was by working through our own issues, counseling each other.

In a practicum, I tried to explain how I react and why.

“You don’t have to explain it all,” said the more advanced student sitting across from me. “We’ll experience your style of relating as we interact and go from there.” 

That had never occurred to me. 

Except for the screaming that I don’t do outside my family, my issues bubbled out. Instead of me telling him I deflected when I didn’t want to talk about something, I did it. He named the behavior and asked me if we could address what I was trying to avoid.

Because I wanted to learn how to communicate better and help others do the same, I let him show me how.

But you know what? Not everyone wants to change. 

And while I’d like to deal with family stress by learning healthier ways to get along, it’s not easy to break a family dynamic.

Why is it that we often offer lots of grace to a friend,
but struggle to do so with a family member?

How to deal with family stress . . .

. . . so we aren’t the ones running from the table.

Remembering that it’s only ourselves we can change, what dynamic would you like to alter?

I’d like to quit yelling at my family. 

But if I do, Dad won’t hear me. He screams at me. I guess that’s what he has to do to hear himself. But as we go back and forth, my blood pressure rises.

Poor Dad, who’s hard of hearing, often hears something different from what people say.

And yelling in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. It lets off steam. I actually had a counselor recommend one good scream a day, so that’s what I did in my car on the way home from work.

A sign that says: Before you try this, do a test scream. I recommended this to a friend and without practicing, she lost her voice for 3 days!

For 6 months, I let a beast loose. Then one day my scream sounded different. It didn’t have the angst behind it.

It’s like my reservoir of anger dried up through the screams.

Now I talk to God.

He helps me put words to my emotions and I end up in a better mood.

First, I babble. I don’t listen very well until I get everything off my chest. (As if God doesn’t already know what’s there! ?)

I blah, blah, blahed about what it was like to wade through all the stuff in my parents’ house, my frustration at the clutter, and the burden I felt ending with, “I’ve gotten rid of my stuff 4 times; how did I get this job?”

Inside I clearly heard, “One day, you’ll have a clean house, but you won’t have your dad.”

Woah! I sat down and let that wash over me a few times.

I won’t always have my dad.

God has a way of getting my attention. With that in mind, I had fresh motivation to want to change. 

Then God said, “What do you want to decide now? 

That’s a thing between the two of us. God often prompts me to decide now so I’ll know what to do when similar situations arise.

As I thought about family gatherings, I realized I can:

  • Do the same things and get the same results 
  • Avoid my family altogether
  • Or-r-r, I can decide now to
    • make more realistic to-do lists
    • add space for self-care
    • allow interruptions and remember how God has surprised with some in the past

It’s not up to me to counsel my family, but I can change.

This new plan comes with less frustration and stress because my peace won’t depend on anyone else.

And ironically, or not, when I change, people around me often respond differently.

A while back, God prompted me to apologize to my dad. We didn’t use to do that. I argued, didn’t think I was the one that was wrong. Blubbering, I apologized anyway.

You know what? Before I could get all the words out, Dad said, “I’m sorry, too!”

Now we apologize all the time, clear the air.

Another family member asked, “How’d you get him to do that?”

I think this might be key:
I went first.

Last weekend, I tried my new ‘how to deal with family stress’ plan. Here’s what happened . . .

I laid my expectations aside and stopped taking the burden of cleaning the house as mine. I relaxed. My sisters came. We worked together and we found treasure. 

In the unfinished room off the end bedroom, next to my Dad’s rock collection and the Willow Ware China that was to be my wedding present, surrounded by every magazine Dad’s purchased in the last 20 years, we found a box of never-before-seen-by-us photos.

A picture of me and my two sisters.
A picture of us circa 1970.

But even more precious than the pictures was the day spent with my sisters. We partnered as a team like we haven’t in a long time. We worked hard, but we had fun and made plans to do it again.

Look at this:

How to deal with family stress? Travel! This man and woman are riding sideways on an elephant.

I don’t know who these relatives are, but see? Wanderlust is in my blood.

Travel, with and without family, is another way I deal with stress, by adding things on my calendar I can look forward to.

My takeaway and maybe one for you . . .

If we stop expecting others to be who and how they’re not,
we won’t be disappointed when they don’t do or say what we want.

I need to let my loved ones be who they choose to be.

And even though I feel like I get more done faster on my own and that working together is a little like making cookies with kids. Well, maybe faster isn’t the best goal.

Isn’t doing something fun together another great way to deal with family stress?

How to deal with family stress? For me, one way is to make cookies with my cousin and her girls.

Maybe making memories should be my goal over the holidays because we won’t always have each other. 

Before we go, can I pray for you?

Let’s take a few seconds and breathe. Doesn’t that feel good?

Dear God,
In this hectic season, woo us to Your side when we need it.
Help us regroup.
Give us cool God ideas about how to deal with family stress.
Remind us that we can yield everything to You.
You’ll trade it for peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:6-7, The Bible).
That’s Your promise.

Merry Christmas!

Related Post: God, Give Me Peace, Ple-e-ease? 

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  1. Thank you for this and thank you for you!! Just remember, as I try, that you are not alone. Even though we are miles apart, we are in similar shoes. I try to remember to breathe, as you speak of when things aren’t going well.

    So just remember, I am here to vent to, if you need, besides your family and friends. As you know, sometimes the ones not so connected can give insight others can’t.

    Unfortunately, all of this falls onto me but I do have some mental help with my mom’s cousin and her family being so close by. They help me more, some times, then even they know. I do repeat myself thanking them but mostly because they have no clue on some of the things that are going on.

    Breathe through the holidays. <3

    1. Yes! We are not alone. And it does seem that is it bonding our high school connections. That’s a cool thing.

      Thank you, Vicki. I’m so glad you have relatives there with you and that you’ll visit!

  2. I love how you were/are willing to let God change you even when it requires a pretty big does of humility. Sweet aroma to Him. Light shining in darkness to others. Win, win.

    I pray I’ll follow your example.

  3. Wow Liz! Thanks for sharing your process. It is very encouraging to go forward and think how I can apply it in my life. Love you friend!

    1. …thank you! Not that I wish hard things on anyone, but I’m glad we have each other to share what we’re learning and to walk all this out with together.

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