Last December, Shawn and Amy Elmer of Stoughton hit five family Christmases in the span of a week to try to cover all of their family obligations. And that was before they welcomed their first child, Josie, in January.

“Everyone wants to see Josie this year, so we’ve had a lot of planning to do,” Amy Elmer said.

Along with elaborate meals, tree trimming and gift exchanges, the holidays often bring strained communication, intense stress and enough dysfunction to choke a reindeer.

But a little preparation goes a long way. One of the keys to heading off stress is a game plan.

“Couples need to feel like they’re a team,” said Crystal Dalebroux D’Orazio, a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Marriage & Family Solutions on Madison’s West Side.

“People need to plan ahead, set boundaries with family members who might have had problems in the past, and have a plan if things don’t work out the way they had hoped,” Dalebroux D’Orazio said.

The Elmers have found that planning ahead, especially through emails, has helped. This year, they hope to establish a tradition for their new little family, since Santa hasn’t been in the mix before. Finding that balance between old families and new is crucial to preventing a nuclear family from going, well, nuclear. That’s where good communication comes in.

“The main things that we stress are to be flexible, to talk to each other, and to plan things out to avoid hurt feelings,” Elmer said.

Open communication key

Dalebroux D’Orazio stresses the importance of an open line of communication in combining families.

“I think it’s about balance, figuring out what a couple wants their traditions to be, and trying to incorporate traditions from each family of origin. Traditions lead to a feeling of connectedness,” she said.

If families don’t talk about how they want to experience the holidays, the stage can be set for epic drama.

“When people are unable to communicate effectively, that leads to conflict, stress and a dysfunctional dynamic,” she said, “especially when alcohol is involved.”

Another big component of a healthy game plan is the establishment of boundaries.

Ann Bohlman, a licensed clinical social worker with Living Well Counseling Services in Madison, encourages her clients to set firm boundaries.

She might tell a client to have a time in mind to leave the gathering, but “if things go awry before that, decide how to exit without making a scene.”

“Maybe it’s best to make an excuse about getting home to take the dogs out rather than calling someone out for making racist comments,” she said. “Go in with an idea of what you’re going to do to take care of yourself.”

Don’t be afraid to reconsider

If a person really doesn’t have the strength to manage a firm boundary, maybe then it’s time to rethink the whole situation. Bohlman said that sometimes, holidays can become so emotionally unhealthy that people need to question whether they even can participate.

“If people are worried about their children being exposed to certain behaviors or attitudes, is it even worth it to subject yourself to that level of stress?” she said.

Having an understanding of what a healthy family gathering looks like can help those trying to navigate complicated situations.

“A healthy family would talk about the event beforehand and everyone would be able to talk about what they want out of the holidays,” Bohlman said. “It’s part of that adult process.”

Losses felt more acutely

Another stressful factor to consider is the flip side of joyful family additions. Many people suffer at the holidays because they are times when losses may be felt more acutely.

Laura Nauman of Madison lost her mother-in-law, Diane, just before Christmas 2010. Holidays since have become a challenge of communication and compromise for her and her husband, Tom.

“We try to decide as a family what the schedule is for Thanksgiving and what kind of meal to make,” Nauman said, “because Diane used to do all of that. It was her holiday.”

The family communicates through email and over the phone, since the couple lives two hours from their family. But that has proven challenging, especially reading the subtext that often accompanies the emails.

“Sometimes you have to try to read between the lines. It’s difficult for someone like me, who wants to just take over without hurting anyone’s feelings,” she said.

Traditions shift as much when there’s a death as when there’s a birth, and the Naumans have found a way to honor their matriarch in a way that is special to them.

“Tom and I go to the cemetery and talk to Diane and tell her how much we miss her,” Nauman said. “It’s our way of keeping her a part of our holiday tradition.”

Take care of yourself

Holidays almost always carry emotional repercussions, and while it’s tempting for many to worry about everyone else’s needs, a little self-care goes a long way.

Bohlman’s advice is to seek out the positives in any stressful situation.

“A lot of times we go into family gatherings with that sense of dread. I like to think about, if I were writing a book, what would I be seeing from an outsider’s perspective? Sometimes it gives you a different view of the situation, of a family’s idiosyncrasies,” she said.

“It becomes interesting to work on changing your own perspective by looking for positive interactions through fresh eyes.”

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