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Have yourself a stress-free little Christmas

"Christmas traditions are twinkling tree lights, gooey chocolate chip cookies, crackling fires, friends and family. And lots of stress—for adults, anyway.Of course, the act of baking cookies, for instance, isn’t at all stressful. But the expectationthat such luscious scents should permeate a house in late December can be hard to handle, especially among families with two working parents and those with ties to long-distance relatives. “Stresses are created internally,” cautioned Michael Corpolongo, a doctor with Kitsap Family Services. “There are so many self-imposed expectations surrounding the holidays that we can become our own worst enemy.”Corpolongo said that before most know it, Christmas can come and go without any enjoyment because people often listen to what they think “should” be done instead of what they actually want to do.“You can’t do everything,” he said. “It’s a matter of prioritizing.”Many family counselors with practices in the South Kitsap area, who receive high volumes of calls during this time of year, agree with Corpolongo’s assessment.“If you think you have to do anything, then you’re setting yourself up for guilt,” said counselor Diane Phillips.Prioritizing can be tough when emotions run high among so many. For that reason, experts have offered practical advice to three different families who’ve struggled with holiday decisions.Family A, a local couple with three young children, want to share a special Christmas with both sets of grandparents. The kids miss them terribly, and it’s been a while since the last large family gathering. Trouble is, the grandparents live in different states. During the holiday season, the family’s finances are stretched, and too much travel could prove too tiring for the kids. Plus, if the family actually decided to travel, which grandparents would they visit? How should they decide?Counselors suggest that if your family decides that travel and multiple visits during Christmastime is too much to handle, then drawing up alternative plans that better suit your family is perfectly acceptable and healthy.Carolyn Caughie with West Sound Clinical Care said decisions should be made anyway within the immediate family unit.“Once you have children, you are the family of origin,” Corpolongo agreed. He said it can be more troublesome and expensive for a larger family to travel. If the family decides one or both grandparents should be visited, one alternative is to say, “‘How can we get you here?’” In other words, offer to help them buy airline tickets to your hometown.And, if that’s just not possible for Christmas, bottom line is that the holiday season doesn’t have to be a once-a-year gig, family counselor Kay Drescher noted.“It’s not just one day when you can show you care,” she said. “There are a lot of other times and places to get together.”Invite them out another time, she advised.Collectively, Family B just isn’t looking forward to the holidays, which nowadays can feel more like a grind than a time to rejoice. Rather than spending every semi-free, wakeful hour shopping for those “perfect” gifts, wrapping them,and then hosting a tantalizing holiday feast, this family is tempted to just get away from it all.All four family members want to break free from the family tradition—hosting a grand Christmas affair at home, to which all grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins are invited—by taking a much-needed family vacation. Why not? The kids are out of school on winter break. Why not enjoy an intimate Christmas celebration? Makes sense, but it can still be hard to break the news nicely to the rest of the family, especially to the grandparents who haven’t seen their grandkids in some time.Corpolongo advises this family to view the vacation as inclusive rather than exclusive to extended family members. “Invite others to share your Christmas,” he explained. “Ask them if they want to join you on your vacation. When you invite them, the ball is in their court.”If they accept, great. If they don’t, self-imposed guilt on the matter is somewhat alleviated.“Personally, as a counselor, I think it’s good for the immediate family to stick together in a more insular setting,” Phillips added. “Boundaries can be good.”Family C, a young, married couple, both want to visit their parents for Christmas, which they’ve done traditionally although both sets of parents live on opposite ends of the state. The husband’s biological father, however, has recently pushed for a stronger relationship with his son. That would be good if the father actually put more effort into it. Now the father wants his son to visit him and his new wife on Christmas, in addition to their two planned visits. The husband’s biological grandmother will be there. He hasn’t seen her in more than 10 years. The husband is understandably excited, but his wife worries that time spent with his ne’er-do-well dad could take precious time away from her folks.Counselors agree the couple should talk this one out together, establish what their hopes are for the holidays and what they can actually accomplish.“I wonder what the wife thinks about this situation,” Corpolongo said. “If he drags her over to his dad’s house, she’ll have a bad time and resent it. I suggest they should ask themselves `Are these stresses making sense?’”Phillips said she, too, could only guess on what advice to give this couple.“It sounds to me as if the husband has filled the role as a fixer in the family,” she said. “If he feels compelled to fix it for everyone, he could feel compelled to see his father. If that was the case, I would help him learn that he didn’t have to do that anymore.”Caughie noted that expectations linked with Christmas include picture-perfect family settings, and most people will do anything to achieve that hope.“You shouldn’t try to change what relationships are actually like,” she said. Phillips put it another way. “What happens is that families tend to buy into the commercial idea of Christmas,” she explained. “Instead, families should look at the holidays with its spirit in mind. They should decide what they actually want it to be like.”"

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