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How to Survive the Holidays When Your Loved One Has a Mental Health Condition

Posted by: Guest Blogger Mara Briere, founder of Grow a Strong Family Inc.
Posted on: Monday, December 9th, 2019

Holidays and celebrations of all kinds are typical events that families participate in. Over the course of the average lifespan, there are rituals and expectations that are developed by each family and they often change over time. 

When a loved one has a mental health disorder, this can throw a curve ball at the established rituals that a family has. Just like cancer and diabetes can throw a curveball at family rituals, it is important to acknowledge that mental health conditions can do the same, and to identify some strategies for creating new rituals and expectations. 

Rituals, routines and traditions change.

When family members must change their diet due to health concerns, the traditional holiday menu gets modified. When children grow up, pair off and have new family commitments, the seating arrangement at the table changes. When families are impacted by divorce, often time the schedule for family gatherings needs to be altered. Accepting that chronic illness, of any kind, is as typical for families as these situations, is essential to your well-being. There tends to be a reshuffling of how events will be celebrated. Then, this dynamic undergoes another change when new children are born and brought into the mix. Death of a family member also shuffles things around. When you look at the big picture, you realize that chronic illness is simply another life event that offers the family an opportunity to experiment with celebrating holidays and other family events differently. That’s not to say that it is easy, (it’s not), but rather to notice that it is one of many life occurrences that changes things for a family.

So how can you navigate the holidays and family events more easily?

1. Prepare in advance and lessen your expectations.

Loved ones with mental health conditions typically experience important events, large gatherings, and new experiences as over-stimulating and too demanding. It is not uncommon for them to feel overwhelmed. If our loved ones had heart disease, diabetes, or cancer, would this be any different? Goodness knows, most of us feel this way! Would we expect that person to participate in the event? How? On what level? Realizing how our loved ones may experience the events informs us of how important it is to prepare in advance and to lower our own expectations of our loved one and what things are going to look and feel like. 

2. Plan your coping strategies and use SMART Goals

It is useful to note that the needs of our loved ones are very typical for all of us as we go through holidays and other celebrations! Maintaining routines gives a sense of stability and security. They are also useful for reducing stress. Applying the use of coping strategies when anticipating potentially disruptive events reduces anxiety. Set SMART goals meaning the idea of Specific, Measurable, Applicable (and, hopefully, Achievable), Realistic, and Time-limited. For example, “We will have a quiet holiday meal at our house consisting of turkey sandwiches, sweet potato chips, and pumpkin pie the night before Holiday Eve. It will be just you and me.”

3. Recognize that structure helps.

Structure is comforting to individuals who are in a precarious state. Structure creates certainty and predictability, which are missing when individuals feel as though they cannot trust themselves and their experience. Holidays and celebrations are periods of time to plan for an activity to include everyone and each gets to decide how or whether they will participate. Breaking down the tasks involved into manageable steps, planning or scheduling them, and following through, is often a change in how families operate and yet is useful not only for those with chronic illnesses, also for younger and older family members! For example, “I’ll be baking cookies on Wednesday between 1-3pm. Feel free to join me!” 

4. Make special accommodations in advance.

When attending an event, it is useful to ask for, or make, special accommodations in advance so that others just accept what is without fanfare. Acting coolly and with a plan gives off the message that this is okay, under control, and nothing to be concerned about. This is also the best way to support the loved one and for the family to be supported in kind. Sometimes, families need to be reminded that they are teaching by example and they are the experts for what their family needs. For example, if drinking is an issue and there will be alcohol, will it be in one room or throughout the space? Better, of course, in one room. 

No matter how the family makes adjustments to its members’ various needs, for their loved one with a mental health condition, it is important to:

  • Remember the PERSON and not just the illness.
  • Reach out regularly so that there is a sense of support.
  • Allow them to bow out gracefully.
  • Provide less intense options for participation (delay, reschedule).
  • Embrace the opportunity to grow as a resilient, strong family.

About our blogger

Mara Briere

Mara thumbnailMara Briere is the founder of Grow a Strong Family. Grow a Strong Family, Inc. is a charitable non-profit social service agency which provides customized family life education services to families uprooted by mental illnesses in loved ones. Its purpose is to address, educate, coordinate, strategize, stabilize, and provide aid and information to support the families of people affected by a family member’s mental illness. Find out more at their website

Mara is also a member of our Family Advisory Board, part of our Stakeholder Engagement Program. The goal of our Family Advisory Board is to infuse family voice into iSPARC and Transitions ACR research and knowledge sharing activities. We gather insight and feedback from family members of loved ones with mental illness on our work to improve the lives of people with lived mental health experience.