Taking the Stress Out of Your Holidays

While ideally the holiday season should be a joyous time with loved ones, the reality for most people is that the holidays can be a significant source of stress. But for people with loved ones coping with mental illness or addiction, the holidays can herald in a full-blown family crisis. During my recent appearance on “Keeping the Well in Well-thy” with Hightower’s Barbara Archer, I explored the intersection between a family’s holiday stress and addiction. The podcast will be available here on December 22nd. I hope you’ll listen, but I wanted to use this platform to expand on how we can tell when the normative holiday stressors cross the line into a situation where intervention is needed. In other words, are the dynamics of the family system just playing out a usual, or is the drama masking deeper issues such as addiction or mental illness?  

When family gatherings equal dysfunction:

Every family gathering has that one individual- you know, the one who you avoid interacting with at all costs. I’m sure as you are reading this, you are picturing who that person is for you at your family gatherings. Perhaps it’s an uncle who brings up inappropriate topics at the dinner table, an aunt who consistently over-serves herself, a cousin who is a close talker, or a family friend who doesn’t know when to stop talking politics. Every family has them. However, not every family has the tools to prevent a minor annoyance from becoming a yearly drama. Here are some tips to help wrangle in your unruly family member:

  • Communication is critical: While it can be very uncomfortable, having a frank and honest conversation with the problematic individual before the holidays is the best course of action. Communicating your expectation for how you would like your holiday event to go makes it clear to everyone where the boundaries lie. While it’s best to be direct, avoid falling into rehashing every wrongdoing the individual ever committed. You must be careful when bringing up old news because this will make the individual want to argue over those facts, and the conversation will become derailed. Leading with specifics can become a trap because they know as well as you do what their conduct has been like in the past. Focus on what the expectation is and be prepared to follow through on any consequences you lay down. Be clear, be kind, be firm, and don’t apologize. 
  •  Look within: If the problems you are experiencing with your family member are not pathologic or malicious, try to reframe your outlook and accept their eccentricities. Sometimes we must take off our judge hat and try to view our loved ones in a different light. It takes years of mindful work to retrain your brain not to snap to judgment. The work is worthwhile because there can be no joy in judging or in being judged. I highly recommend reading “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz. It is an excellent resource for those seeking to reframe their thinking and have a moment of self-reflection before holiday gatherings get into full swing. 
  •  Plan ahead: Do you always get cornered into conversation with the problematic family member? Seek out an ally at the party and plan an exit strategy. Set a time limit that you’re willing to engage with your difficult family member and then have your partner interrupt the conversation or call you away.   Setting limits for yourself on what you are willing to tolerate or engage in is a great first step, and with a bit of help from a friend, you can avoid hurt feelings or enduring a conversation in which you don’t wish to participate. 

How to identify if a family member’s poor behavior is something more:

Sometimes holiday annoyances and dramas can be symptomatic of more significant problems that the family has failed to address for a long time. If the problematic family member’s behavior is indicative of an underlying battle with addiction, here are some red flags to look for:

Behavioral red flags of addiction:

  •  Has the individual’s personality shifted suddenly?
  •  Is their energy level unusually low? Or unusually high?
  •  Are they avoiding engaging in conversation or isolating themselves?
  •  Is their overindulgence in alcohol a one-time thing or a standard practice?
  •  Is the individual agitated, aggressive, or arguing needlessly?
  • Does the individual frequently disappear during the gathering?

 Physical red flags of addiction:

  •  Bloodshot eyes
  • Changes in appetite/ sudden weight gain or loss
  • Unusual smell on their breath, body, or clothing
  • Lack of coordination
  • Abnormally large or small pupils
  •  Look of being unkept


What to do if you suspect addiction is playing a role in challenging family dynamics?

The holiday season tends to put a spotlight on individuals who have been struggling with addiction throughout the year(s). Problems that had been brushed under the rug quickly come to a head around the holiday dinner table, yet families are often hesitant to seek help during this time for the sake of getting through the season. The harsh reality for families agonizing over finding the perfect time to help their loved one seek treatment for their addiction is that there is never an ideal time. There is, however, the risk of running out of time.  If you feel like your loved one has a problem with addiction, here are some things you can do:

  • Approach your loved one with love in your heart and leave judgment at the door.
  • Compassionately express your concern.
  • Ask questions and be ready to listen to the answers.
  • If something feels wrong, it probably is. Trust your instincts.
  •  Don’t let problems with addiction go on. Take action and seek help and guidance from professionals.


Why seek the support of a seasoned professional?   

Engaging the support of a clinical strategist and crisis interventionist is the critical first step in designing a crisis outreach strategy. After 23 years of being in the trenches of crisis and complex family situations, I act as the clinical strategic advisor and anchor for helping move a family through a crisis and into a sustainable recovery. An engagement with me begins with a zoom meeting consultation with the principals concerned about an individual or emerging crisis. Once we mutually agree that there is a good fit between my expertise and the family’s needs, we set a schedule to learn more. This process includes evaluating each family member’s need so that they are prepared to support the person or people in crisis. This includes taking a deep dive into the collateral and clinical details of the case. I then select the treatment strategy best suited for the individual client and engage my elite network of vetted treatment environments and clinicians across the country. Once a client is in treatment, I act as a liaison between the family and the treatment center, holding the facility accountable for providing the services they offer and ensuring the client is actively engaged in treatment. I actively work with the treatment team to create a discharge plan that is supported by aftercare and case management services. Through this process, I release the pressure on families to take on the total weight of their loved one’s care during treatment by removing the worry of making wrong decisions and allowing them to focus on restoring the family structure to health.  To schedule a consultation and begin the process towards healing, call 216-755-7545.


Putting the joy back into your holiday:

Families are complex, messy, and challenging at times, but the beauty in families is also found in their individuality and eccentricity. If your experiencing normative family stress during this holiday season, I encourage you to take a moment of self-reflection and know that we all bring our baggage to the table. Set boundaries, have honest conversations, establish a plan before your gathering, and don’t be afraid to articulate your needs. But if your family gathering is hampered by a loved one who is struggling with addiction or a mental health concern, please act. Approach them with compassion and care, ask questions, listen, and encourage them to seek help. If they’re not willing to face the reality of their addiction, enlist the help of professionals. This might just be the greatest gift of love you can give them this holiday season.    

December 13, 2022

About the author:

Jane Mintz

Licensed Professional Counselor
Concierge Clinical Strategist
Crisis Intervention Specialist

With Love and Light,

Jane Eigner Mintz, MA, LPC, is the CEO and Chief Clinical Strategist of her international consultancy firm, Realife Intervention Solutions, LLC, offering strategic direction for addiction, mental health, and life concerns. A veteran treatment provider and thought leader in the addiction and behavioral health industries, Jane developed The Field Model of Intervention, the first-ever clinical model of intervention now in use by practitioners and organizations across the United States and the United Kingdom. Best known for her work as a concierge strategist guiding clinically complex individuals and their families through crisis, she is also a noted industry consultant, educator, and speaker who has garnered international recognition. But it is her own experience with addiction and recovery that grounds all that she does, “I am a lightkeeper today. Unless you have lived in the dark, you don’t know what light is. I have the ability to reach into the dark and pull people out.”

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