Dealing with Family History During the Holidays

Laurie Jenkins - November 13, 2009 05:29 PM

eCare Diary is pleased to announce Margery Pabst as a new contributor. We met at her recent book reading and loved her message about the importance of caring for oneself while caring for others. She is the ideal person to address family issues during the holidays.

Margery Pabst is a writer, speaker, facilitator and an expert in personal and family communications. Her four books explore some of life’s key transitions—moving your family, leaving home, and retiring. Her most recent book, Enrich Your Caregiving Journey, emphasizes how to take care of yourself while caring for others. Practical tips are introduced through a series of engaging stories and the reader is invited to use a personal journal section at the end of each chapter. For more information, see

The holidays bring both delight and stress. Who is making the turkey? Who is having Thanksgiving and who is hosting a certain holiday are questions that create stress in many families. Everyone wants to make the holidays perfect for their families, however, there is no such thing as perfection. Each of us has a set of feelings that are bound to conflict with others. Even in normal times, stress and conflict are certain to be present along with the favorite foods, gifts, and good cheer.

Caregiving and illness elevate these dynamics even more. Family history including family alliances, patterns of behavior, and lingering animosities all play an integral role. The thoughtful caregiver will anticipate these holiday dynamics and will use/delegate some practical strategies for soothing feelings and creating an atmosphere of mutual trust. Family harmony is critical for patient well being and convalescence, and the skillful caregiver will remind everyone that this is the goal.

You, the caregiver, and other family members need to feel that you are:

- important.
- not alone.
- appreciated.
- in control.
- taking care of myself.

These five key principles for promoting positive communication go a long way to creating harmony despite the dynamics of your family history. Let’s examine some ‘red flag’ comments that signal negative family feelings and strategies for constructively dealing with them.


“Mother doesn’t trust me to make the pies” is a red flag signaling that a family member does that feel important or appreciated. Strategies for ensuring that everyone feels important and appreciated during the holidays are:

-Include everyone in the holiday preparation.
-Create different teams for 1) meal preparation, 2) holiday decorations, and 3) entertainment.
-Divide family members who often disagree into different teams.
-Put family members together who need to communicate more with each other.
(Family members who don’t see each other often or who have mild disagreements can benefit from working together.)


“No one ever calls to ask my opinion” is a red flag signaling feelings of isolation. Strategies for bringing those who feel alone are:

-Call a family meeting.
-State that the purpose of the meeting is to ensure everyone’s ideas are heard, including the patient.
-Support the ‘loner’ by including his/her ideas.
-Ensure that everyone knows that teamwork is what will make the holiday a success.
-Create a Facebook page featuring family entries.


“The men always dominate the living room with their football games” points to feelings of having no control and a lack of fair play in the family. At the family meeting:

-Stress the importance of sharing favorite spaces. (i.e. the living and media rooms)
-Encourage decisions/compromises be made to ensure fairness. (Everyone gets a turn at using televisions, playing favorite music and games, or watching movies.)


“Sue and Fred make us play stupid games” signals long standing dominance of some family members over others. Caregivers who turn long standing negative patterns into positives emerge as the most creative of all. Ask yourself, “How can I/we use an alliance for everyone’s benefit, especially the patient?”

One strategy is to ask Sue and Fred for their help in making sure everyone enjoys the holiday games. Let Fred and Sue know you appreciate them and have confidence that they can achieve this goal. Stress that this will require a broader range of games. Ask if they will tackle the issue by starting with the patient’s selection of games and then ensuring that everyone has a chance to be heard. Each person in the family needs to have one favorite game played.

Use these strategies to develop some of your own ideas tailored to the red flag comments in your family. Be creative! Each idea often leads to another idea for resolving conflict. As time goes on, you may even start having fun with the possibilities for anticipating family conflict and heading it off before it even happens.

You should not be in charge of all these strategies, so be sure to delegate as many of the tasks as possible. You are the idea maker for family harmony during the holidays, not the executor of all the possibilities. Your role is not to complete the tasks yourself, but rather to be aware of them and encourage others to join in for a family team approach and a happier, less stressful holiday.

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