Taking on Thanksgiving: How to Emotionally Manage Holiday Gatherings in 2020

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Breaking News: Thanksgiving is next week. How is it that 2020 seemed to crawl through the spring and summer months and fly by this fall? This year has been something! Due to the ongoing pandemic, the holidays ahead are going to look dramatically different. With the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests rising in Palm Beach County to 10% (FDOH), it’s now not only a physical challenge to gather safely, but an emotional one as well. You can’t blame people for wanting to get together during a crisis!

The bottom line is, if there’s ever been a year to back out of your family’s traditional Thanksgiving celebration, this is it. But how can we make alternate plans that your immediate household is comfortable with without hurting other family members’ feelings? It’s not easy, even despite the current public safety concerns. 

According to local family therapist Lori Lundin-Fish, PhD, LMFT of Palm Beach Therapy Center, “People often experience difficulty making alternate plans due to guilt or the fear of ‘letting others down.’ Now more than ever, it is important to set and maintain strong boundaries.” As a mom, I understand that family origins are very important and have allowed us to develop and pass on traditions and values to our kids. However, the family you’ve now created in adulthood is equally important, and new traditions can be just as meaningful, especially around the holidays.

That said, managing your adult family members’ expectations is never clearly black and white. Dr. Fish says, “There are many things we can do in order to minimize stress and manage expectations. Expectations are dangerous because they often lead to disappointment. Yikes. That is a mother’s worst nightmare–especially during the holidays.” Here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind:

  1. The best way to manage family expectations is to simply limit them. Be honest with yourself and your family about your goals. If you do not meet the expectations of others, it’s not your issue, especially if you were clear and consistent about your plans and boundaries–which includes respecting the boundaries your family sets for you. 
  2. Be mindful of others’ assumptions as well as your own. People often assume that their family members “should” know or understand certain viewpoints. However, this is far from the truth!
  3. Focus on and be mindful of the “bigger picture.” So what is the “bigger picture” you may ask? Well, it can be anything that is meaningful to you or your family. For many, this time of year is special because it allows them the opportunity to spend time with their loved ones. Rather than focusing on getting tasks done and meeting unrealistic expectations (set by ourselves or others), more time can be spent on bonding and making memories. The holidays may become less stressful and far more enjoyable when gratitude is emphasized and people feel a sense of unity and accomplishment.

What if my kids say: “The holidays just aren’t the same!”

That is very true, the holidays are not the same. “Normalizing this fact and accepting these changes is far more effective than resisting this shift in reality or manufacturing a different reality for the sake of your children,” according to Dr. Lundin-Fish. “Validate their emotions, empathize with their experiences, and re-orient their focus on other areas that bring your children excitement.”

The one good part about 2020 is that there are so many ways we can stay connected to family and friends during the holidays through technology. Calling or texting loved ones, setting up Zoom calls, or watching the endless video library of Netflix holiday content together is a great way to bond from afar. And on Thanksgiving Day, Zoom is lifting its 40-minute time limit for free calls so that we can all spend plenty of (virtual) time with our families.

According to Dr. Lundin-Fish, “The holidays are a fun time, however, they can also become overwhelming and exhausting. Understanding your personal limits, setting realistic and obtainable goals, as well as communicating your needs and boundaries clearly will help you to become more present and connected with the ones who matter most during this time of year.”  

Happy Thanksgiving, Boca Raton!