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It’s Not Always a White Christmas. Complicated Families: Complicated Holidays

December 13, 2010

Family holidays used to be simpler, at least that is the myth. When family members look more alike, have similar ideas of how the holidays are celebrated, and have common expectations of behavior, food and customs, life seems easier. Today many more families are intercultural, interracial, and inter-religious, especially in big cities. Blended families are also complicated with step, half and biological siblings, and multiple sets of grandparents. These days, celebrating the holidays often involves planning and negotiation about how to please everyone and avoid upset. The following examples describe normal families with difficult situations.

Ann’s parents came to America from Lebanon and run a small hardware store in a rural town in Delaware. Martin’s family is African American, live close by, and are in frequent contact. Ann and Martin are in their early thirties, have good careers, and have been married for six years. Ann’s parents refused to come to their wedding and did not speak to her for two years. When Ann and Martin’s daughter was born, Ann’s parents mellowed and without any discussion got back in contact. Now there are two children and Ann is in close touch with her parents, though they have never discussed the two years that they were not in touch. Holidays and family events, however, still involve tension. Martin’s family is noisy, interrupt each other constantly, disagree loudly, and ask a lot of questions. Ann’s family is quiet, questions feel intrusive, and they are uncomfortable with explicit disagreements. They are not used to people who act or look different, and don’t understand what feels like the tumult and chaos of Martin’s family. With two small children Ann and Martin want to have Christmas at their own house but are wary of having the two extended families together.

Another couple, Kay and Phil are grandparents of a blended family. Each has two grown children, with children of their own. Kay’s daughter, Martha, recently divorced her husband, Jim, of twenty years, and is now living with Larry. She has shared custody of her two children with Jim. Both Kay and Phil love Jim and do not want to lose contact with him, though they also understand the importance of respecting Martha’s choices. They had Christmas dinner with all four of their children, their partners and grandchildren, but missed Jim as he had been part of their family for many years. When he called the next day they invited him and his two children to dinner. Martha was extremely upset when she learned of this, and called her mother to complain. She felt disapproved of and unloved. Kay told her she loved her and that she came first, but she hoped that did not mean they could never see or talk to Jim as he had been in the family for twenty years and he had no other family.

Both examples illustrate difficult situations. How do you maintain joyful, warm family gatherings when families are so complicated? Clearly there is no easy solution. Sometimes it helps to talk about it as in Kay’s case with her daughter. Martha did not like it but when Kay was clear that Martha is the priority and still loved, she could tolerate Kay and Phil wishing to see her first husband once in a while. On the other hand, sometimes it does not help to talk, like in Ann and Martin’s family. They decided to tell each set of grandparents that the other set was also invited and they wanted both to come, but left it up to them to make their own decision. They wanted to be direct and welcoming, but both Ann and Martin felt a long discussion was not going to help or change anything, and in fact would probably make it worse.

Each situation is unique. It may help to remember:

  • Be calm and caring
  • Be welcoming and respectful
  • Remember next Christmas or Passover may be different
  • Maintaining family relationships is a long process
  • You can only do your best, and you cannot change others

Margaret Shapiro, LCSW is a Senior Staff Therapist, practicing in Council for Relationships’ University City and Wynnewood offices, and can be reached at 215-382-6680 ext. 3110.