Welcome to the second fabulous week of December! The hustle and bustle of the holidays is in full swing, leading us to think about the impact of the holidays on those whose family members, specifically parents, suffer from mental health conditions. We are often very aware of our mental health but do not usually consider the impact of mental health on the people around us. What happens if one of your parents or caregivers has a mental health condition? Does this contribute to a positive environment?
“In 2012, about 38% of Canadians had at least one family member with a mental health problem; of those, about 35% reported that these problems had affected their time, energy, emotions, finances or daily activities. People who were affected by a family member’s mental health experienced stress and symptoms of mental health problems themselves; and about 62% reported that their family member’s problem had caused them to become worried, anxious or depressed.” (Pearson, 2015)
Sometimes the memories of traumatic holiday experiences with parents can stick with children and become an issue for individuals as they grow up and have families of their own. We sat down with Danielle Lancaster, MCouns, RP(Qualifying) to see what advice she would give someone whose parents turn every holiday into a negative experience. Danielle noted “Be gentle and patient with yourself if you notice that you are struggling with anxiety around family plans. Visiting parents who struggle emotionally around the holidays can be a very draining experience. It is normal to experience some stress and anxiety in relation to this.”
Danielle continued to speak about the way to prepare yourself before visiting with your parent(s), saying “Be realistic in your expectations. This can help mediate resentments and frustrations. If every holiday before this has been a negative experience, then the current one is unlikely to be drastically different, unfortunately. Reality checking your expectations can be supportive in staying grounded when an unwelcome comment is made, or you find yourself watching a familiar family dynamic play out. If things do go better than expected, you can allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised.”
It might not even be the day of the holiday that is exceptionally tough, the days or weeks leading up to the holiday can be equally challenging. This can lead to increased anxiety for others in the family and cause the holiday to become something negative that they are anticipating.
What happens when you feel like you are being pulled in too many directions? Danielle commented “Know your limits and respect them. I encourage everyone to reflect on what you can and can’t handle in terms of holiday plans. Plan accordingly. It’s okay to say no to one thing and suggest something else that feels more manageable. It’s okay to take a break when needed (even if it’s just hiding in the bathroom for 5 minutes). Keeping visits short and excusing yourself when you’ve reached your limits is a good way of taking yourself. If we try and engage with parents from a place of feeling completely exhausted or burned out, then it can often lead to more painful interactions.”
Danielle also mentioned “If possible, schedule some holiday plans that feel enjoyable and don’t involve your parents. Having things to look forward to will provide somewhat of a buffer against the stress experience due to difficult holiday events.”
We also asked Danielle if there are any specific mental health conditions that she feels might have more impact than others when it comes to the holidays. Danielle explained “I’m not sure if I would necessarily say that a specific mental health condition might have more of an impact when it comes to a holiday…I would probably suggest that this has more to do with the amount of trauma a person has experienced around the holidays and their ability to cope with that trauma and/or manage their diagnosis. Many people have experienced trauma around a holiday without necessarily having any kind of diagnosis. Additionally, others with a diagnosis might have had enjoyable holidays as it allowed for happier times. I think I would suggest that if you have a parent with a diagnosed mental health condition who doesn’t/is unable to manage it well and has a lot of trauma around the holidays then this is likely to be a very difficult time for them and those around them. Unfortunately, the holidays can be a time of year when people relive and reenact unprocessed pain from their past.”
We encourage family members who are struggling with interacting positively with their parents to reach out to professionals for help if they are in need. Seeking family therapy is a great way to better communication within the family but if that is not an option individual therapy can help you find ways to navigate your issues.