- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 22, 2002

When Alise Schor prepared to visit her younger sister last month in New York for Thanksgiving, she packed her suitcase, shopped for a hostess gift and loaded her children in the van. She also called her sister and suggested fighting ahead of time so the inevitable squabbles wouldn't put a damper on the holiday weekend.

"I said, 'You know we are going to fight, so let's just get it out of the way now,'" says Mrs. Schor, a 37-year-old Fairfax mother of two. "We fight about everything under the sun. We've been doing it our whole lives."

The holiday season a time for nostalgia, giving and celebrating is also a time of togetherness that can bring up childhood hurts and sibling rivalry, making grown-ups act like petty preteens.

Mark Gorkin, a licensed clinical social worker in the District, calls dealing with family one of the "four F's" of holiday friction. The other biggies are fantasies, finances and food, he says.

"Holiday blues are the feeling of sadness you have when you can't be with those people who have been special and significant," Mr. Gorkin says, "but holiday stress is when you have to be with some of those people.

"Family encounters can often bring out control and competition issues," he says. "It brings up the parent-and-child dynamic. You can be 30, 40, 50 years old, and when you visit for a holiday, your parent could still be trying to control things."

When grown children and parents get together for the holidays, it is easy to fall into familiar roles, Mr. Gorkin says. The baby of the family may be a 40-year-old with three children but still may be patronized like a 6-year-old. Otherwise level-headed adults living their own lives may revert to the familiar competition for their parents' affection and attention.

"When I go home to Houston, my sister usually will bring up some past hurt," says Paige Dellinger, who lives in Cabin John and will visit Texas with her teenage daughter over Christmas. "I just think you should do that before or after the holiday, not during."

It also can be stressful when going "home" means the realization that one's parents are aging, Mr. Gorkin says.

"When dealing with elderly relatives, I advise clients to check Type A personalities at the door," he says. "You have to be willing to move at [your aging parents] pace. You shouldn't expect them to be who they used to be. We have to be able to do some anticipatory grieving, which means acknowledging that we have memories, but the person is not the same person they were years ago."

Memories of holidays past are indeed another reason for holiday stress, Mr. Gorkin adds. Many adults recall the old days with great reverence even if siblings were squabbling back then, he says.

Holiday memories can be particularly stressful on women because they are under great pressure to produce a holiday like the ones their own mothers organized. With more women holding full-time jobs and more families separated and reconnected by divorce and remarriage, that is a tall and stressful order.

"The holidays can be particularly stressful for women," says Norman Epstein, a psychologist and professor of family studies at the University of Maryland. "They tend to feel it is their primary responsibility to make sure all goes well. But even a generation ago, families weren't that simple."

Mr. Epstein suggests making a list of holiday priorities and having a family meeting to delegate responsibilities ahead of time.

Mrs. Schor and her sister, each of whom has two small children, took a timeout from their pre-emptive arguing to do just that.

"We are buying dessert and making Stove Top stuffing," Mrs. Schor says. "The kids don't care if we spend 18 hours cooking; they just know we ate a holiday dinner."

The real holiday preparations

Family encounters could go a lot more smoothly if people prepared for visits with as much organization as they put into, say, buying gifts or decorating the house.

"Think about what happened when you all got together last year," Mr. Epstein says. "Think about who got set off about what. Then devise a strategy to plan ahead for this year. Is there someone who dominates the conversation? Think about what you can do to deal with him. Could you change the seating arrangement at the table?"

Planning activities, such as a group walk or game, can take people out of their usual habits, he says. Assigning people tasks to help prepare for the holiday can be a positive activity.

"It is OK to ask for help, and helping makes people feel important," Mr. Epstein says.

Mr. Gorkin says letting go of the holiday fantasies can help alleviate a big part of the holiday stress. He says a friend of his, a single parent named Linda, was a perfect example of what he calls "the holiday Catch-22."

"She was berating herself because she couldn't keep up with the holidays cooking, shopping, decorating the way her mother had," he says. "Of course, Linda's mom did not work outside the home. I recall Linda observing that, as a successful professional, she now has the money but lacks the time for the season. When she wasn't working, she had plenty of time and no money."

Mr. Gorkin tells his clients to "gently embrace, but don't cling to magical memories."

"I say to discover a blend of magical realism that helps you balance love, work and play," he says.

Mr. Gorkin also advises telling your spouse or significant other exactly what may trigger your stress at a holiday gathering, whether it is your mother's nagging, Uncle Charlie's drinking or your sister asking if you have gained a few pounds since last Christmas.

"Get a strategy," he says. "Tell your spouse that when he or she sees your nostrils flare, that is the time to come up with a reason to take me aside and remove me from the situation."

Be my guest?

It was Ben Franklin who said, "Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days."

That line was written centuries ago, before a good host had to buy a tofu turkey for his brother and move breakable items out of the reach of his toddlers.

For many families, hosting out-of-town guests or being an overnight visitor in someone's home only adds to the stress of the season.

Preparation is also the key to coping with extra laundry, dishes and requests for diet, not regular, Coke and a pillowcase with a high thread count.

"What you need to do is accommodate people and adjust," Mr. Gorkin says. "If you are trying to be Martha Stewart, it is going to be very stressful. You don't have to clean so much as to pass the white-glove test. All you have to do is create an atmosphere where people can feel comfortable."

Preparation goes both ways for hosts and guests, says Cindy Post Senning, great-granddaughter of etiquette expert Emily Post and co-author of the book "Emily Post's the Gift of Good Manners: A Parent's Guide to Raising Respectful, Kind, Considerate Children."

Guests should inform hosts of their plan and try to stick to it, she says. For instance, if they say they're going to arrive Saturday at 9 a.m., they shouldn't show up at 2 p.m. A good guest also should rent a car or take public transportation if planning on participating in activities not related to the holidays, such as visiting other friends or sightseeing, without those who are hosting them, Ms. Senning says.

Guests who have special dietary requests or restrictions can help their hosts by offering to bring their own special food or stop at a market when they get to town, she says.

"If you are staying more than a couple of days, then it is nice to bring your own soy milk," Ms. Senning says. "It is OK to remind your host if you are a vegetarian, but then say you will be glad to help out. Also, your hostess won't plan a whole meal around meat if she knows ahead of time about your restrictions."

Meanwhile, a good host or hostess should ask ahead of time if there is anything special to get for a visitor, Ms. Senning says.

A good host also should roughly plan out activities so visitors can pack the right items.

"If you are planning a specific event or a formal dinner, then they will know what to bring," she says. "If you are going to play sports, such as golf or tennis, and the guests don't have the right equipment, then you should provide it for them."

If the hosts have to work or tend to other responsibilities during the stay, it is perfectly acceptable to send relatives out on their own, Ms. Senning says.

Mr. Gorkin says hosts should not feel guilty for pointing visitors in the direction of the Smithsonian and giving them a quick lesson in how Metro farecards work.

"If you have other responsibilities, don't feel compelled to take visitors sightseeing," he says. "You can give them a good map. You can delegate tour-guide responsibilities to a teen."

Coaching children on what to expect can help keep the peace when you're visiting friends or relatives, Ms. Senning says. If one's hosts don't eat until 7 p.m., for instance, the children will know to expect a snack at their usual dinnertime. Knowing ahead of time that Grandma uses a walker can help a small child not to be scared of something he or she has never seen, she says.

Mr. Epstein says keeping in mind that everyone will be out of their usual routines and that the situation is just temporary will help everyone cope.

The knowledge that the situation is just temporary is something Mrs. Schor keeps in mind at her sister's house.

"We are going to be living out of a suitcase, and there is going to be dog hair all over everything," she says. "So I just have to let it go while I am there. The kids are going to have fun."

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