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How to Cope with Holiday Changes

This season, serenity starts at home. Here's how to handle five family conflicts that threaten to take the happy out of your holidays.

By Pamela Kramer

FUNDING CRISIS
You and your husband usually treat the kids to a trip during winter break, but finances are too tight this year. There's even less money to spend on presents.

Festive Fix
While you don't want to worry your kids, it's okay to be honest about the situation. "You're helping them mature by preparing them for the realities of life," says Vicki Courtney, author of 5 Conversations You Must Have with Your Daughter (B&H Books).

Explain the circumstances matter-of-factly: "Because we have less cash, we'll be skipping the trip and cutting back on spending." Reassure them by saying it's hopefully temporary and remind them that being together is what makes the season special. Don't feel bad for not doing more. "Apologizing could give kids the idea that fancy gifts are owed to them and might even foster a sense of entitlement," says Courtney.

Keep expectations in check by establishing a spending limit for each child. Their wish list items should fall below that amount and should be prioritized according to what they need most. To deemphasize materialism, plan a few activities that involve helping others who are less fortunate, like collecting items for a local food bank or delivering meals to elderly neighbors in need.

SPIRITUAL BREAK
On Christmas Eve, your family always attends midnight Mass. But your teenage daughter is exploring atheism and says she no longer believes in God.

Festive Fix
Try not to feel threatened by your daughter's refusal to follow your faith. "It's normal for teens to start thinking independently, looking at life from different angles and making their own decisions," explains Susan Smith Kuczmarski, Ed.D., author of The Sacred Flight of the Teenager (BookEnds Press).

See if you can appreciate your daughter's newfound open-mindedness while reminding yourself that many kids question religion at some point in their lives. Instead of overreacting as she immerses herself in this exploration, become knowledgeable about different philosophies so you can discuss them with her. Share what you believe without seeming like you have all the answers. Ultimately, let your daughter know you'd like her to attend Mass because it's what the family does together, but don't pressure her. Forcing the issue may make her resent your faith and jeopardize your relationship. And don't be surprised if she skips Mass this year but decides to revisit religion in the future. People often return to the beliefs of their youth.

CHORE WARS
It's your turn to host the first night of Hanukkah and you need help with the cooking and cleaning. Your husband is watching the game and your two sons are glued to their computers.

Festive Fix
Resist yelling or getting mad; it won't help. "There's a good chance the guys will continue doing what they're doing, angering you even more," says Michelle Maidenberg, Ph.D., who teaches cognitive behavioral therapy at New York University. Instead, have a heart-to-heart talk with your husband about preparing for your guests. Start out by acknowledging his previous efforts while asking him to take on a few more tasks. Say, "Thanks for cleaning the bathroom. I'm still feeling overwhelmed with everything left to do. Would you mind peeling the potatoes?" It's best not to deliver a written list; he might feel too bossed around.

Once your husband's on board, you can rally your sons. Ask for their attention and calmly explain that they're essential to the plans: "Tonight's going to be a lot of fun, but dinner is a team effort and everyone should pitch in." Itemize tasks one by one and let them take turns choosing what they want to do. Give them clear instructions and deadlines, or they may think it's okay to wait and take out the trash in a few hours, says Maidenberg. Maintain an upbeat attitude and emphasize how much you rely on them—and appreciate their work.

IN MOURNING
Recently your mother-in-law passed away. She always visited during the holidays and enjoyed baking treats and bestowing gifts. The kids miss her a lot and no one feels like celebrating.

Festive Fix
Speak candidly with your kids about their grandmother and acknowledge feelings of sadness. "Teens tend to isolate themselves when they're grieving," says Maidenberg. "When parents verbalize their emotions, kids know they're not alone—and that there's an open door if they want to talk."

Reduce stress by paring down your to-do list and accept that you may not be able to celebrate in the usual ways. Say, "Since this year is our first year without Grandma, it's going to be different, and difficult, for all of us." Ask your family which traditions feel most meaningful—like decorating the tree or volunteering at a shelter—and skip the rest.

Try to find joy in the holiday amid your grief. Reassure your kids that it's okay to laugh and have fun, even if they feel down at times. Say, "Grandma loved Christmas and would be happy to know we are enjoying ourselves." Create a new family custom to honor her, such as lighting a candle in her memory, cooking one of her beloved dishes or sharing stories during the holiday meal.

FAMILY AFFAIR
It's a tradition—your entire extended clan gathers at your aunt's house for New Year's brunch. But your son has announced plans to spend the day with his girlfriend's family.

Festive Fix
While it may be upsetting that your teen wants to skip the big event, don't take it personally. As kids get older they become more interested in friendships and romantic relationships and prefer spending time without their parents, explains Kuczmarski.

That doesn't mean your teen gets a free pass. Let him know how you feel: "New Year's Day is special for our family. I look forward to everyone being together, and if you weren't there I would really miss you." Then come up with a compromise, such as requesting he have brunch at your aunt's before going over to his girlfriend's. Or invite her to join your family for part of the day.

By insisting your teen stick with tradition, you overlook what's important to him, which can cause friction. "Teens need a balance of structure and flexibility," says Kuczmarski. Start the new year by giving him a little space—now that's a resolution you can keep.

More Naughty Than Nice: Teens' Annoying Holiday Habits

  1. Texting friends under the table during the holiday meal
  2. Insisting on helping with cooking, then leaving the kitchen a mess
  3. Waiting until the last minute to do their shopping
  4. Updating their Facebook status from church
  5. Telling their younger cousins there isn't a Santa Claus

Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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