I’m traveling with my family to Mexico for two weeks this winter. The trip is a throwback to holidays from my childhood. Every other year, my family avoided the holidays altogether and traveled to Latin America. As a kid, I was sad to miss the holidays, but in retrospect those international trips were formative. This will be the first family trip in a decade and the first time with my nephews (7 and 10).
When I took a month-long trip with my mother to Ghana, I had to get very clear in the months leading up to the trip why I was going. And my purpose for taking the trip wasn’t to have a great experience.
Visiting Ghana was a lifelong dream of my mother’s and a trip she wouldn’t have attempted alone. My primary reason for going to Africa was to support her; to facilitate her having a positive experience.
As you are heading into an experience with family, ask yourself why you are prioritizing spending time in this way:
- What are you hoping to get out of it?
- What do you want for your family members?
The more clearly you know why, the better you will be at boundaries and making productive use of the time.
Habit: Write down 10 different reasons “why” you are taking the action that you are. They won’t all feel true, but you’ll find something new through the exercise.
There’s no problem so big you can’t walk away
I use this phrase, which is oft repeated by a close friend, to remind myself that I have agency. We always have the ability to leave – even when it feels like we don’t.
It is something of a cardinal sin in my family to leave a conversation or issue unresolved. And yet I’m always calmer for stepping away for ten minutes and coming back to the issue later.
Any of us is free to take a break or walk away at any time.
Habit: Remind yourself, maybe even aloud, that “There’s no problem so big I can’t walk away.” Repeating that serves as a reminder that you are not stuck in a difficult situation.
Take a pee break
Years ago, a friend taught me the trick of taking a “pee break.” Maybe you actually need to use the toilet, but that’s beside the point.
The goal is that when you are upset you take a couple of minutes to reorient yourself and come back refreshed.
Under very few circumstances is it considered socially inappropriate to take a couple of minutes out of a conversation “because I have to use the restroom.” And often you come back better able to handle whatever challenge has been going on.
Habit: Practice “taking a pee break” when the stakes are low. During an otherwise unheated conversation say, “I’ll be back in 2 minutes. I need to use the restroom.” The better you get at taking a break, the better you’ll be able to when things get heated.
Therapy with your parent/child
I’m a proponent of facilitated conversation: therapy, coaching or anything else that works for you.
In advance of our trip to Ghana, my mother and I went to therapy together. The objective was to create some guidelines about what we might expect while we were traveling in Africa, and how to collaborate better.
My mother and I walked out of therapy with a new willingness to listen to each other, which led to a gentler trip in Ghana then might have happened otherwise. (It was still an intense experience!)
Habit: Organize a facilitated conversation. It might not change anything, but it might also result in less drama.
We had regular family meetings growing up. Once every few weeks, our family of four would sit down and discuss challenges that had come up recently.
I don’t remember what got discussed, but “let’s have a family meeting” remains my family’s shorthand when communication is getting tough.
Habit: Schedule a brief “family meeting.” The goal isn’t to change anybody’s behavior, but to create space for airing of grievances – so they don’t bubble over at inopportune times.
As I get ready to spend two weeks in close quarters with my family in Mexico, I know that I am going to need to practice a lot of these habits and tools. I hope that one of these habits is useful for you as you head into your own holiday plans.