Setting expectations in advance of holidays can help families enjoy

This is especially important if the families have recently experienced a divorce or financial stress

Published Nov. 15, 2011

Judith_AdelsonAll families should spend as much time setting expectations for the holiday season as they do setting up the decorations if they want to reduce stress and increase their enjoyment of what can be a great time of year for friends and family.

According to Judith Adelson, assistant professor of human services and psychology in Lynn University's College of Liberal Education, this is especially true of families that have experienced divorces or other stresses such as bankruptcies or foreclosures. 

“There’s a sense of guilt that often accompanies the holidays for those families who have experienced divorce or other major stresses such as financial troubles,” said Adelson, who is in private practice as a clinical social worker and marriage and family therapist in addition to her teaching responsibilities. “Holiday rituals can be fun and exciting, but they can also remind families of what they don’t have.”

A recent divorce or even long-past split can be especially challenging since the holidays may highlight what many believe they are lacking—the stereotypical family structure. However, statistically at least, this structure is actually no longer the norm in American society.

Add to this the financial troubles many are going through in the recession, and you have recipe for discord and stress if people are not realistic.

“When people set their expectations for the family holiday rituals too high, they are setting themselves up for added stress as they try to reach their expectations and are inevitably let down as the expectations are not reached,” Adelson said.

More on Adelson

Adelson has been counseling individuals and families in South Florida for many years -  and wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on the subject of families and holiday rituals, titled “Home for the Holidays: The Continuity and Preservation of Rituals as Adult Children of Divorce Grow Up.”

“What’s needed to keep the peace, Adelson says, “is for the adults to discuss expectations in advance of the holiday season and other events (birthday parties, religious traditions, etc.) to help manage expectations and make the holidays as close and rewarding a time as possible.” Based on her research and experience, “those who set boundaries and expectations in advance fare best,” she says.

Adelson is available to speak about: adult children of divorce, divorce, how families can cope with financial stress, holiday rituals and families, and marriage and families.

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