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For Cheery Gathering, Keep Family Busy, Sharing

December 09, 1989|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Your cousin Bob has vowed that if Uncle Eddie shows up this year and tries to sell him more life insurance, Eddie will never live to see New Year's.

Your nephew Joey (he calls himself Mangler) is taking karate and can't wait to show everyone, Aunt Giselle is into the cooking sherry again, Mom and Dad have turned the martyrdom dial up to high because they'd really planned to be in Hawaii, your sister Moonbeam has become a vegetarian and is lecturing everyone on the evils of turkey flesh, your wife's sister's twins have just poured brown gravy into the VCR, your own children are afraid to come out from under the bed, and the creamed corn just exploded.

The only silver lining you can find in all this is that Norman Rockwell didn't live to see it.

Short of calling 911, how do you cope with the holiday family gathering that is a cinch to be far quirkier than the warm, loving, tolerant, traditional evening over at the Cratchits? What do you do when you're faced with the real world of modern family peccadilloes, jealousies, rivalries, squeamishness, avoidance, unfriendliness, nit-picking, discomfort and anxiety that sometimes go with the season?

For starters, say Orange County psychologists, distract 'em.

"It's important to try to inject a little humor into the situation," said Tustin psychologist Alan Liberman, a marriage, family and child counselor. "I think anything that can be done that might be of a creative nature where you can provide humor, or have more than one activity going at a time, would help. The guests might bring white elephant gifts to exchange to warm things up, or you might even produce a little newsletter to catch people up on what has occurred during the year with different family members.

"You can assign people to tasks during the gathering, too. Make someone responsible for games and activities, or for bringing different parts of the meal. That way people feel a part of things and don't feel so isolated. And, it takes the burden off the people giving the party."

Jody Dean, a psychologist with practices in Mission Viejo and Fullerton, said activities such as movies or a visit to the park "will direct the attention away from conflict and onto the movie, or the kids playing, onto something that is pretty neutral and an undemanding situation. Sometimes adding a few people, friends for instance, can actually enhance things in that those people will give the guests something to focus on besides themselves."

It is that self-focus that often is the culprit when family gatherings get tense, said Barbara Kreedman, a clinical psychologist with a practice in Santa Ana.

"People have a problem with looking for approval during the holidays," she said, "and one of the psychological issues that they're dealing with is their need to separate themselves from the people that they're close to and at the same time wanting love from those people. They're wanting to be who they are, but they're looking for approval, too. They're looking for people who are like them or who feel like them, and sometimes the family members cannot provide that. There's what is called a narcissistic sameness that doesn't always exist among family members. That's where injuries and disappointments take place."

The holiday season, Kreedman said, "increases the need for that narcissistic sameness. You look to your family at this time of year, and there's a need for family unity. Ideally, people have to realize that approval and validation can't always be there. Coming to grips with the limitations found in other family members will release the injury and depression that exists when people aren't getting their needs met. That's going into adulthood."

It is possible, Liberman said, to defuse a family confrontation before it begins.

"It's probably a good idea when you invite everybody to let them know in a letter who is coming (to the party) so they can have a choice of whether to come," he said. "If people know they're going to be going to a place and someone is going to be there that they do not get along with, and certain activities are going to be going on, they can participate in one activity while the other person is doing something else. These gatherings are not the places to work out bad-blood situations."

They also aren't the time to expect children to be on their best behavior. Children can become confused by all the activity, and bewildered by the behavior of adults.

"It's harder for children to look to themselves and say, 'Gee, Mom's cooking all day and she's upset, but that has nothing to do with me. It would be wonderful if adults could convey that idea to a child. But if the adults are angry, children personalize that and sense that their parents have changed. They say to themselves, 'What have I done? Am I bad today?' "

It's a mistake to expect resolutions to family conflicts during gatherings, Dean said, even during the season of good will toward men.

"Especially around the holidays, when everyone's on edge, it's best that people not have expectations that they'll have Hallmark-greeting-card family gatherings," Dean said.

"Families don't work that way. Even though it's Christmas Day, it's possible for it to turn out to be a pretty hellish afternoon. People shouldn't come into one of these gatherings with an agenda on their minds. You're not going to solve a 10-year-old problem with Mom and Dad."

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