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Psychology Professor Shares How to Navigate Family Dynamics over the Holidays

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Susan Dugan


Feature  •
Q & A Holiday Family Dynamics

Unlike idealized seasonal narratives depicted in movies and TV, the holidays can dish up more than a few stressors for students, faculty and staff already pressured by end-of-quarter deadlines and overpacked schedules — especially when it comes to family relationships.

The CAHSS newsroom asked Research Psychology Professor Galena Rhoades, director of the Institute for Relationship Science [formerly the Family Research Center], to share her thoughts on how to handle relationship issues that inevitably arise when spending extended time with loved ones over the holidays.

Galena Rhoades headshot
Galena Rhoades

Whether you’re a homeward-bound student, a parent visiting grown children or spending the holidays with close friends, stepping up communication around roles and expectations in advance can help calm super-charged emotions and make the most of time spent together, according to Rhodes.

Why are interpersonal dynamics during the holidays often difficult to navigate?

You have several generations and families, all with different expectations and dynamics coming together all at once. It’s a time when we’re essentially trying to blend expectations, traditions and relationships — new and old — under a lot of pressure to get along and have a happy holiday.

That pressure often springs from nostalgic past associations or living up to cultural narratives about the ideal family, right?

Yes. The tradition part means that our generational and cultural background also comes into play. I’m not only affected by what my parents and I might have done to celebrate the holidays but what my grandparents did. All those different layers are activated at a time when we’re also welcoming new family members — partners, spouses or children — into the family.

What are the specific challenges for students who are going home for the holidays and what advice would you give them?

Our quarter system at DU means we have a really extended break and that can be hard because students, especially freshman, may feel like they’re living in two different worlds. At school they’ve been making their own decisions and now they’re home where the expectations are the same as when they were seniors in high school. They may be trying to meet up with their friends, but parents still want them to spend time with them and their siblings and may still have rules around things like curfews. A lot of confusion about roles can come up.

This is a big transition and I recommend that students who are planning to go home really think about what they want their family relationships to be like at this stage in advance. It’s also helpful for parents to give some thought about what they want prior to students coming home and not expect to just slide back into old patterns that may no longer fit.

We tend to get into trouble when we have expectations based on the past that we may not be aware of until we’re disappointed that someone didn’t meet them. So, I suggest first thinking about and becoming aware of your own wishes and expectations and then communicating those expectations and negotiating about what rules might be more appropriate.

It is a time of great transition and parents understandably may be kind of frozen in time because they still think of their child as the child, they dropped off at the beginning of freshman year, right?

Yes. Parents don’t just think of their children in the present moment. It’s like they have a stack of photographs and memories from the time the child was born, probably earlier. All that gets stacked into one single thought about who their child is, and they might not be caught up yet with who their child is now as a freshman in college living independently.

Can you suggest some specific ways students can better communicate with parents about this?

It’s important to recognize that it probably needs to be more than just one conversation and I know it’s hard because there are finals and a lot happening at the end of the quarter. But I suggest thinking about the kinds of changes they’d like to see and touching base with parents by phone, text or email to open a discussion about their upcoming visit. Maybe starting with telling their parents how much they’re looking forward to spending time with them and spending time with their friends and explaining that there are some things they’d like to do differently.

The main thing is to initiate a conversation in which they describe some of the different expectations they have and why before getting in the car or on the plane, if possible. That gives everybody a chance to think about it and adjust to the idea that things might be different over the holidays this year.

What about students who can’t or choose not to go home for the holidays and the emotions that might arise?

Many students are in a tough position where things aren’t the way they would like them to be at home. It’s important to communicate with their family as best they can about what they want to do and what their plans are, but also to reach out to their friends and broader network to let them know their circumstances and make sure they’re getting the support they need.

What advice would you give to faculty, staff and even graduate students who might be hosting family members for the holidays?

Having time off over the holidays is important for all of us. I would advise making sure that your time off isn’t only spent entertaining family and friends or meeting other people’s needs and expectations.

It’s good for families who are getting together not to just automatically do things the same way because that’s the way they’ve always been done but to talk about what they would like. That might mean starting some new traditions or going back to certain past traditions but either way, to be thoughtful and honor to the extent possible what everyone would like. We also need to intentionally carve out time to make sure we meet our own needs, in terms of things like spending time with friends, rest and rejuvenation.

Do you have any tips for staff or faculty planning to visit grown children, maybe for the first time?

It’s important to recognize that they’re passing the torch. This is an opportunity for them to think about what they want for their family members and family traditions and to embrace new holiday experiences. We could all do better in giving each other some grace around transitions across all generations. The key is communicating thoughtfully and sensitively around everyone’s wants and needs.

The holidays make me think of welcoming and giving to each other and often that means embracing new partners and family members. What a great opportunity to share those experiences and new relationships together. We can miss that if we insist on just doing things because that’s the way we’ve always done them or following rules that might be outdated now that roles and relationships have changed.

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