Dealing with Family Stress During the Holidays

This year, most of us are making adjustments to our usual holiday plans.  Maybe there are fewer seats filled at the table or maybe you’re at home instead of traveling. Family stress is a normal part of family gatherings, now complicated by COVID-19 restrictions and anxiety. 
To help you reduce your stress and make the most of your time and communication with family, listen to this week’s podcast. 

Note: Below is a transcription of this Walking Our Talk podcast. Please excuse any grammatical or punctuation flaws, as the transcription is a written version of our fluid conversation.

Pauly [00:00:07] Welcome to walking our talk with Alan and Pauly Heller, join our conversation as we discuss practical ways to apply spiritual principles to your everyday life and help you walk your talk one step at a time.

Alan [00:00:25] Welcome to Walking Our Talk. I’m Alan Heller and I’m with my wife Pauly.

Pauly [00:00:30] Hello.

Alan [00:00:31] We always love to do this together. We’re better together most of the time except for remodeling our bathroom. So Corey Allen gives eight tips for handling extended family stress during the holidays. And of course, this holiday is going to be really different for everybody, including us. I mean, since 1983, we’ve gone to Florida with somewhere between 15 and 25 people, our extended family from San Francisco, Boston, New York and Phoenix and other parts.

Pauly [00:01:07] And Tennessee.

Pauly [00:01:07] And actually Oregon as well. So our kids come every other time. But this year, three months ago, because of covid, we ended up canceling and it’s going to be a very different Thanksgiving. But here’s what Corey Allen says. “As the holidays are upon us, many of us will be spending time with extended family. And that may be adjusted this year, whether you’re traveling to visit parents or they’re coming to stay with you. Time spent with family can be filled with blessings and lots of stress.” So his father in law says Apley, one of the best things about the holidays is seeing the headlights of the family members coming into the driveway to visit. And the second-best thing about the holidays is seeing their lights go away.

Pauly [00:02:01] Their tail lights?

Alan [00:02:02] Their tail lights and so and our daughter in law, JJ Heller, wrote a song, Oh, Christmas Time, we’ll all be fine in a week or two. That’s part of her lyric. And she says, wasn’t it just July when I was alone in my room without a cousin in sight? And this is the time of year when families get together. But again, it’ll be a little bit different. Some families will and some families won’t, depending on size and health and all kinds of things.

Pauly [00:02:39] Right. You know, it’s been pretty much a given that every year we start looking at the flights to Florida.

Alan [00:02:51]  Three to six months ahead of time.

Pauly [00:02:53] Oh, yeah.

Alan [00:02:54] And we actually bought the tickets and they’re in for next year, hopefully.

Pauly [00:03:01] I know it’s a very different year this year.

Alan [00:03:07] So some of the things that go on in families, I mean, first of all, there are close families, close-knit families. And I mean, our family is very different from each other. And we have people that are politically just totally in a different realm than us. As a matter of fact, we are the black sheep of the family, I think. And but we want we made a decision a long time ago with our family that we wanted to demonstrate and show our love for them, no matter how far it was, no matter how much time it took to just say we love you at least once a year to be with them.

summer vacation

Alan [00:03:44] And it’s an interesting mix because we are definitely the odd people out so we don’t share the same faith. You know, that’s the first thing. And so we’ve learned to try not to take personally what we feel, you know, are sometimes attacks on our value system or on who we are. And I remember one time my brother, talking about, you know, what do you think if Emily brings her partner with her who’s a female and I just said, you know, this is not my show. This is a family thing. And fine. Um, and, you know, I said, you know, for 30 years, there are lots of things that you’ve been doing that offend me. So but I don’t mention those. I mean, that’s not what I’m about. So.

Pauly [00:04:42] Right. I think with family, it’s really important to find our common ground and to remember how much we all love one another. And, you know, scripture is very clear that love overcomes a multitude of sins. And in families, it overcomes a multitude of differences and, you know, different points of view, different value systems. And yet the one thing that I think in both sides of our family that everyone agrees on is that we love one another and that that love for one another is more important than expressing our opinions on a whole wide range of things.

Alan [00:05:38] Sexuality, political differences on even just value systems of, you know, what we watch on TV or don’t watch on TV.

Pauly [00:05:45] Right. Well, and I remember you having a conversation with your brother a while ago. It’s been a few years now. What are the things that we can agree on, what are the things that we can talk about? We know that in the spiritual realm or in the political realm, we’re polarized. We’re very polarized. But aren’t there other things that we can talk about without having to convince the other person that they’re on the wrong side?

Alan [00:06:19] So so the one thing is we may not share the same faith, but we do acknowledge one another and love one another and try and work through that. Number two would be expectations. I think for us, we have to work through our expectations because they’re very different than our family. In terms of I mean, there was one Thanksgiving, I mean, we’ve spent, what, 36 Thanksgiving in Florida with all our family. And mostly it’s about Turkey and football. And I remember one Thanksgiving, my brother said, let’s do something really special. holidays work for youLet’s say what we’re thankful for, and that’s a pretty normal thing to do, and yet there wasn’t a dry eye as we went around the table, that was one of the most meaningful times. But I don’t feel free to initiate all the time because I feel like they’re going to think I’m controlling things. And so I have to be careful for that. So trying to get our expectations squared away about what we want or sometimes letting go of our expectations so that we can do what they want to do. For one thing, we’ve never really gone to church on a Sunday when we’ve been away. We just have made a decision. Our expectation is we’re going to be with our family. We’re not going to go visit a bunch of people or do a bunch of ministry things where our ministry is to be here with the family that don’t know the Lord. And we want to demonstrate our love.

Pauly [00:08:02] Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. We’ve had to do that. But I think I think another piece of it is keeping open communication with one another. And that is part of expressing what our expectations are like, getting in touch with our expectations and then letting the other people in the family know what those expectations are. Excuse me. And I think of one illustration just a couple of years ago, because I have multiple sclerosis, my energy level is limited. I can do things and I, I just run out of steam and they are all, It seems like everybody else in your family. Well, they’re excellent in the kitchen like they’re gourmet cooks and they love getting together and concocting all their foods and and and it’s overwhelming for me, for one thing, to be in the kitchen with that many people and feel like I’m in their way.

Alan [00:09:25] And so you and I go wash the dishes.

Pauly [00:09:29] Yeah, I’ll clean up. I’m very happy to clean up. I know that when you’re when you’ve put out all that energy cooking and putting everything together, that when dinner’s done you want to be done with it. And I’m fine at that point to just go in and wash the dishes and load up the dishwasher and wipe off the table and put things away. And but I, I kind of need to make that known to the family.

Alan [00:10:00] Well, and you were sort of reprimanded because the schedule didn’t go the way it should. And you were lazy because you were sitting.

Pauly [00:10:08] I was sitting at the table. Right.

Alan [00:10:10] Enjoying yourself instead of washing the dishes. And one of our compatriots there said, why aren’t you doing that? So.

Pauly [00:10:17] Right, right, right.

Alan [00:10:18] We and we try and in our family, we get to talk about that stuff. In some families, you just don’t. And there’s like a root of bitterness that starts getting.

Pauly [00:10:29] Exactly. I would rather know that somebody is disappointed or upset that I didn’t do what they thought I was going to do rather than have them go home and stew about it all year and come back together the following Thanksgiving and have it have them have a chip on their shoulder or, you know, have divided the whole group because I’m not pulling my weight.

Alan [00:11:03] Right. So communicating those expectations. And if you’re aware of them, I mean, sometimes you’re not aware and sometimes you get to you hear somebody tell you you’re not meeting my expectation. Other times you’re blind to it until a flare up happens. And like the time where one of our nephews, you know, wanted to wear a jacket and tie to honor my dad, who wasn’t involved in Thanksgiving that year, and that would be the way dad would dress. And some of us had jeans. Some of us didn’t have ties. And all of a sudden that became a gigantic issue in the family that year. So much so, he didn’t even eat Thanksgiving with us. He had to go upstairs. Anyway, so another thing we do is pray. We pray before we pray during we pray after. We usually go for a walk on the beach and we’re praying about and talking about how is it going?

Alan [00:12:02] And I know by the end of the week with people who don’t know the Lord when we’re talking about things of this world. Ninety-nine percent of the time I’m just ready by the end of the week to find someplace to go worship God with other people who worship God. I mean, I certainly have time with him, but we pray a lot before we go and we get others in our life group or whatever to pray for us, because at any given time we can start, we can either react or get reacted to and we just need the Lord to be a part of that time.Spending Time With God

Pauly [00:12:38] Yeah, I think it’s really important to maintain our quiet time during that time. That doesn’t mean that we go downstairs while everybody else is having their, time. And open up our Bibles. And, you know, it’s that’s offensive to them. So we can still. Get in private. Go to our prayer closet, be alone with the Lord, it’s not about show. We’re not praying is the Ferris’s pray. Jesus said, to make a big show of our righteousness and holiness. We want to just they fueled up, put gas in our tank, meet with the God of the universe, who is the source of our strength and love, and is giving us the wisdom that we need to deal with our family and to love them the way they need to be loved and who knows it. We never know when something that we say or do, just like we don’t know sometimes that something that we’ve said or done has offended somebody. We also don’t know when something that we’ve said or done has really blessed them or ministered to them in some way.

Alan [00:13:58] So the next thing we’re going to talk about is focusing on the reason why we’re there, what’s our purpose. And it sort of ties in with expectation. But we try to look for what’s good about being together and not focus on the differences that we have. We talked a little bit about this. We try and take advantage of this opportunity to have fun with them and just be people and not the Bible thumping people they think we are. It’s like there is, you know, left is left and they’re thinking we’re Sun Myung Moon or if he hasn’t been around for a while.

Pauly [00:14:33] But well, and also, I think because we live I mean, literally on opposite ends of the country from one another, we don’t it’s not like we run into each other in the supermarket or that we can have picnics together on weekends. We just literally don’t see one another throughout the whole rest of the year.

Alan [00:14:59] Right.

Pauly [00:15:00] And so it’s it is really important to have meaningful times together. And one of the things that I’ve always appreciated about the way we spend that week together is that there’s a flow of making connections with one another. Sometimes it’s those really informal times, the going down to the beach and taking one or two of the kids and go looking for seashells or, oh, one of the kids wants to go and play in the pool. And you go over there and one of the other siblings is in there with the kids as well. And you splash around, you know, it’s just the unplanned times, those opportunities to just be walking side by side and doing everyday, ordinary things.

Alan [00:15:55] To be washing dishes that sink for lunch. I mean, yeah, usually everybody does dinner together and we have gotten into a routine of taco night, Mexican night, crab night. We have all these different Thai night. Right. So, I mean, I think for a family that doesn’t know the Lord and we care for one another and you know, when you’re in trouble, our family is there for us. And that’s something that not every family has. And one of the things we need to look at is sort of our boundaries. What you know, what can we boundaries. You know, the author, Townsend and Cloud Brown, right. Cloud talks about a boundary is something that keeps the bad out and the good in. And sometimes we have to do that as we deal with our family. And again, I think for our family, it’s fairly functional. I mean, we don’t have any drop-down drunks or sloppy drunks in our family. We don’t have abuse in our family, et cetera. That makes it really hard for, I think, the people that I see in counseling. You know, they really have a hard time when their family gets together. There are all kinds of underlying issues and people that don’t talk to each other. And I mean, we’ve had flare ups, blowups, all kinds of things. But we usually talk about it, apologize for it and actually embrace each other.

Pauly [00:17:34] Right. Right. That is something that I find very healthy about your family, is the ability to confront and discuss differences or hurt feelings or whatever, and maybe there is a flare up, but it’s out in the open. It’s not something where somebody is holding it all inside and internalizing it there. There’s a lot of discussion that’s out in the open about things that are going on.

Alan [00:18:09] And I think another thing that’s helpful is to talk about what kind of structure. I mean, we can we need to be willing to say what we expect, but not hold on to it. Like, I like to be able to say, hey, whatever man on the beach and just take a walk. And three people say yes. And the rest of everyone’s said, no, no, I don’t really. And one of the things in our family that is nice is people really do respect your yes. And respect your no most of the time. I mean, I think there are natural affinities with the ones that are on the East Coast. My sisters tend to be able to talk with each other and they visit each other and do things together. Whereas my brother and I are in Phoenix and San Francisco and, you know, we don’t have as much contact. And so just suggesting things that you think will help connect because we only have a week and we’re trying to cram like the whole year in that week. So establishing some ground rules. And I think that’s what we’ve finally done in terms of like, uh, I think a year ago or two. Everybody decided, OK, we’re not going to the gourmet cooks are done, they don’t want to only be the ones cooking, so they said each family will have a night.

Pauly [00:19:32] And that really that was helpful for them.

Alan [00:19:35] They didn’t feel like overburdened or whatever. So, you know, as you’re listening to this, you might have some ideas and ways that you can, one, make sure you’re communicating with your family and do it early. I remember a year we weren’t going to go because Jessica had soccer coaches that were going to be looking at her and we were going to go to San Diego. We told them a year before because people usually need conditioning to be able to deal with change. And this year, nobody, I mean, nobody expected covid and holidays are going to be different this year. But plan what you’re going to do, try and set your expectations, try and get some boundaries, try and communicate as best you can. Sometimes you need to do that in writing. It might be easier for you. And but the main thing is if you’re trying to be together as a family major on the things that you’re like in and try and limit the things that you know are not going to change no matter what.

Pauly [00:20:40] And I also think that because this year a lot of families are not going to be able to get together physically, this would be a really good time to maybe put in writing or to send out a video expressing how much you really love and appreciate one another in your family when you know you’re not going to be able to be together physically.

Alan [00:21:09] So this is Alan and Pauly Heller. We’re walking our talk, connecting people with God and each other. And if you want some more resources, feel free to go to our website: Until next time, have a great holiday season.

Pauly [00:21:25] This has been walking our talk with Alan and Pauly Heller, where we put into action those principles, we know from God’s word one step at a time, you can find more help at our website:


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