If you’re someone who lives far away from your family of origin—far enough to usually skip the Thanksgiving trip and just go home for Christmas—this year might be a little different than usual. Flying or driving a long distance for only a few days may not feel worthy of the hassle of getting tested and quarantining for two weeks upon return, not to mention the risk. Enter: your mom’s dream of you coming home for a whole month—Thanksgiving, Christmas, and are you sure you can’t stay for New Year’s?
While this plan makes logistical sense (you’ll work remotely; you can save some money), emotionally, it might already feel like a low-humming stress soundtrack in your life, even if the trip is weeks away. Maybe it’s because you haven’t been home for that long since high school, or because you usually have a hard four-day limit when it comes to tolerating your dad’s relentless pessimism, or because you won’t be able to take a breather at your best friend’s house like you usually do. It’s not that you don’t love your family—you just don’t want poor communication patterns or useless arguments to outweigh the good moments.
If you just deeply exhaled in agreement, but also genuinely want to go home, here are some things you can do to get yourself ready (without stressing yourself out even more).
Pinpoint exactly what you’re worried will happen.
You probably already have a vague image of what you reaaaaaaally don’t want to experience when you’re home. It could be your parents arguing and looping you into their conflict; your mom criticizing your appearance (or, in her words, “helping you”); or your dad paraphrasing Fox News headlines over breakfast. You probably also know your usual reaction (yelling back, storming off, or silently gnawing the side of your cheek) won’t help, either.
“After four days in our parents’ house, we tend to start regressing and acting like a teenager again, so be realistic about the patterns that you already know are there,” Andrea Bonior, a therapist and author of Detox Your Thoughts, told VICE. “It really is about figuring out what you're most afraid of, and what you can anticipate happening, and then thinking about the best ways to build in a pause, or strategize responses in difficult situations.”
Practice switching into “observing mode” if you feel baited or pushed into arguing.
If you have a family member who finds any kind of healthy boundary-setting on your part “disrespectful,” and will do anything to pull you into an argument, your emotional survival toolbox might need to expand a bit.
In clinical psychologist Lindsay C. Gibson’s iconic book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, she notes the importance of switching to “observing mode” when you sense yourself getting upset. It’s essentially a practice in detaching as soon as you see someone needling you in an attempt to get you to snap at them. Observing means making the choice to view the situation like an outsider might, and recognizing that certain statements are meant to nudge or shock you.
Bonior agreed with this sentiment, and suggested you create a sort of mantra around the idea that your “best self” won’t let things escalate (especially since you’ll probably be the one blamed if a fight erupts). That might look like calmly saying you agree to disagree, no matter how much you disagree or how frustrated you are. Eventually, the other person will likely tire out from trying to elicit a response.
Of course, shouldering the burden of keeping the peace is a lot to take on, which is why Bonior strongly encouraged taking a walk or going to read a book if you’re starting to feel drained. Anything you can do to further detach and give yourself space is crucial.
Decide how you’ll handle impossible arguments—like politics—and stick to the plan.
Unless your family is perfectly aligned in their political views, or somehow has a great track record of never sharing them (how??), the timing of going home for a month right after one of the most significant elections in U.S. history might be weighing on you. It can be doubly hard when you feel pressure to push back on bad-faith views, while knowing full well that it’ll only lead to a screaming match each time.
If you know you’ll never get anywhere because your family is committed to misunderstanding you, Bonior suggests simply having a conversation beforehand about avoiding politics or other similarly-polarizing discussions, and then being disciplined about it. But, she said, this approach won’t work if your relatives won’t respect these boundaries. “There's a huge difference between families that know that [certain topics are] a hot button, and don't want to get into it,” she added, “versus families where it's a hot button, but one person steamrolls the other.”
If you know your family might initially agree to the “no politics” rule, only to quickly violate it during even the most benign conversations, you’ll have to be more active in how you navigate dinner talk. It can be something as subtle as finishing your meal quickly and excusing yourself to go call a friend, or more direct, like once again reminding them that you disagree and don’t want to talk about it, and then leaving the room. You can also try to be proactive about conversations by throwing out open-ended questions, rehashing beloved childhood memories, or asking for advice. You could also or make plans to do things together, like decorate the tree or play a board game, when you start to feel tension.
The key is to not get drawn in to a passionate (but likely useless) debate, which brings us to…
Figure out what alone time during a pandemic—at home with your family, while it’s cold outside—will look like.
“Even if you generally get along well, you are going to be spending an intense and long amount of time with people,” Bonior said. You’re bound to get on each other’s nerves and feel distressingly cooped up. At the same time, you also won’t have the usual options of ducking out in a coffee shop or your high school friend’s living room.
That’s why creating an escape hatch for yourself is vital. It can involve small, tangible things, like doing some stretches in your room, or calling a friend while you take a walk around the neighborhood. Or it can be a more in-the-moment decision, like saying you’re going to run an errand with a sibling when you’re feeling overwhelmed and ready to snap. This might also be a good time to get back into a project you’ve been putting off or start a workout routine—anything that you can use as an excuse to be alone more, and that also has the benefit of making you feel good.
You may also want to think about the family activities you normally agree to out of obligation, and see if there’s a way to get out of them. For instance, my parents always want to watch movies together, and I used to always say yes out of guilt, but on top of dealing with serious screen fatigue, I also realized I don’t always have it in me to listen to my dad talk over half the movie and watch my mom grow increasingly snippy until a maybe-fight occurs. Instead, I’ve started saying that I want to go read a book in their fancy bathtub—something I never get to do in my Brooklyn apartment.
Try to frame alone time as “I just need to recharge” or “I really need to go for a run to feel good” instead of “I need to get away from you!”—it will likely go over better that way.
Act more like a true guest by cooking your own meals and doing your own laundry.
Through a combination of your mom refusing to let you lift a finger in the kitchen and your own desire to not have to think about meal prepping, it’s easy to slip into letting your parents, well, parent.
The problem is, this makes it so much easier to feel like a teenager and subsequently let all the old patterns from high school reemerge. It makes complete sense, too: If your parents are used to only seeing you at most a few times a year for short spurts, and they end up cooking for you or putting your dirty laundry in the machine, it’s harder for them to remember that you’re a separate adult with your own viewpoints and who knows how to take care of themself. As Jennifer Peepas has previously written for VICE, using good housemate etiquette—like loading your dishes into the dishwasher or cleaning all your shedded hair off the bathroom floor—solidifies the fact that you’re a grownup.
As Bonior said, “It's a nice signal of independence, but also it's just a nicety for whoever you're staying with.” It’s better for everyone if your parents aren’t constantly in hosting mode, no matter how “OK” they say they are with it, or how territorial they get about being the only ones to cook Thanksgiving dinner. Whatever small things you can do, even if it’s setting the table or picking up groceries, can help smooth things over in a big way.
Find a way to replicate the social interactions that have gotten you through 2020 so far.
Just like you’ll want alone time, you’ll need some kind of socializing or friend interactions with people who are not your family to tide you over. But since indoor hangouts aren’t safe (and your old friends might not even be home this year), you’ll have to get creative.
Bonior suggested looking back on the virtual or socially-distant interactions you’ve enjoyed most so far this year. Maybe you like talking masked walks or calling your best friend for three hours while you do laundry, but dread Zoom happy hours with more than three other people. Or maybe you’ve been feeling lonely in general and don’t feel like you can count on your close friends to be around as much as they usually are, but want to find a way to interact with someone.
Your holiday game plan might include things like setting up a recurring brunch Zoom in advance, joining a virtual book club or trivia league, creating a friend Slack, or even just consciously committing to be the first to call your friends more. Having a support system or better place to be when family starts wearing you down makes a huge difference.
Realize that your being home for this long is just as much an adjustment for your family as it is for you.
It can be hard to feel so much preemptive tension at the prospect of going home—something that’s supposed to inspire feelings of safety and warmth, not the beginning of a panic attack. But the fantasy of a perfect family—and the idea that home exists in a time capsule and hasn’t changed since you were in high school—is part of the problem.
Bonior emphasized the importance of remembering that the childhood home you remember is different from the one that exists now, where you don’t live there full-time and play an active role in the day-to-day operations. “Part of it is really understanding that this is someone else's space,” she added. “It doesn't mean it's not home home, but right now, these are people who have gotten used to living without you there.”
And remember that you’ve likely changed in ways that may seem like a shock to your family. That’s not to say you should hide who you are now, but it’s good to remember that your parents aren’t necessarily obstacles to a relaxing trip as much as people who require some understanding and adjustment, too. At the very least, do what you can to go into this clear-eyed: stop telling yourself that a full month home (bookended by two major, notoriously stressful holidays) is going to be effortlessly joyous, and that any deviation from that is a moral failing. Even that knowledge—that you will get annoyed with each other, that you may even have some fights or harder conversations about your relationship—can make the whole experience a little lighter and easier for everyone.
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