By Eric Nakano
After a very contentious election cycle, I was looking forward to spending the holidays with my extended family and enjoying each other’s company (and not talking politics). However, with COVID-19 numbers skyrocketing, we have decided to not do Thanksgiving and Christmas with the extended family.
Do you have any suggestions on how to have a memorable holiday, while trying to rebuild relationships after political disagreements?
Home for the Holidays in San Dimas
Dear Home for the Holidays in San Dimas,
Your letter specifically mentions the holidays, but I think it is relevant and important any time of year because we are always celebrating special occasions, such as birthdays, anniversaries and retirements with our loved ones.
While COVID-19 has disrupted many things, COVID-19 does not take away your ability to make special days memorable. If you have children, it is all the more important to help them manage their disappointment and focus on what they can control. This will help build resilience and equip them for other challenges they will face in life.
COVID-19 has forced families to spend time together, which is what holidays are about. The key is to ensure that time spent together is high quality. USA Today recently ran a story noting that COVID-19 provides families with an opportunity to develop new traditions.
Your letter asked specifically about the holidays. In my family, that specifically means celebrating Christmas. I am reminded that in the Christian tradition, Mary and Joseph did not expect to spend the final days of Mary’s pregnancy traveling to Bethlehem for a census. And Mary certainly did not envision herself giving birth in a barn using a manger as a makeshift cradle. Yet they adapted and made do with what they had. Now, reenacting their story has become one of the most common traditions in the Christian faith.
Similarly, do not be afraid to try new ideas and put a new spin on the holidays or any special day. You may be surprised by what sticks. To develop new traditions, make sure you involve your family in planning and give your children the opportunity to unleash their creativity. For an upcoming birthday, for example, you could make a cake together using an online video. One of my favorites is Emma’s Goodies, where she teaches you how to make a festive birthday cake in the microwave in five minutes.
Other new traditions could include decorating for the special day, starting a family memory quilt, sharing a new board game from your childhood with your family, producing a family TikTok video, painting with Bob Ross on YouTube, or planting a garden. If you have a teenager who is less cooperative, specialists at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles advise parents to ask how your teen is feeling, empathize and thoughtfully listen without problem-solving. One strategy is to provide your teenager with a sense of control by giving him/her choices on how he/she’d like to spend the day.
Your other question — how to rebuild relationships with extended family after political disagreements — is more complicated. The first thing you must do is recognize that 2020 is a year of loss for everyone. People have lost loved ones, income, homes, relationships, their identity, and even hope. The world feels scary and unfamiliar. For many people, the election was about the future they wanted for themselves, and thus, it is a very emotional topic. You can (and should) have empathy for your family members while recognizing you may need to give yourself and your extended family time and space before rebuilding. This does not mean you have to avoid them; you can check in on special days while politely keeping conversations focused and brief.
In some cases, disagreements run deep and require more action. Take the time to decide whether you even want to rebuild relationships with your family now or in the future. A good therapist can help you do this. Sometimes, maintaining a healthy relationship with other family members is not possible, and spending time with people out of obligation when you feel anxious during every interaction is not in anyone’s best interest. If this is the case, let family members know you need time to evaluate your relationship and that you will be in touch when you are ready.
If and when you are ready to rebuild, jointly set ground rules for how you will interact. These rules could include banning political talk, not airing certain television programs while together and setting expectations for when and where to wear masks. It is important that rules are not ultimatums but instead serve as agreed upon boundaries that will prevent conflict. Rules can also encourage what you would like to talk about and what you would like to focus on. Finally, you should make it clear that any party has the right to calmly leave if the boundaries are not respected.
This year may be the most challenging of our lifetimes. But things will get better, and this too shall pass. Thanks for writing and remember to be excellent to each other.
If you need advice, please send your letters to “Be Excellent” at email@example.com. Letters are edited for clarity and are published anonymously. Eric will respond to a letter in the next issue of the newspaper.