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In-laws and holidays: A guide to happier family gatherings

Published: Monday, Dec. 17 2012 4:15 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — On Christmas morning, Eric and Harmony Pearce and their four kids will wake at her mom's house in St. George. Before the day's done, they'll also visit with his mom.

This year, it will be a bit chaotic, because one of Eric's siblings and her children's families, who have scattered, will all be together, something that often doesn't happen anymore.

Everyone gets a piece of the Pearces this Christmas.

For many families, the season of joy is also the season of juggling — time, relationships, traditions. For some, it's the in-laws' trek to see the grandkids or vice versa, a journey that may occur once a year. If they live closer, it may be a daylong event or a couple of hours.

But more than any other time of year, traditions, wishes and expectations can mesh or erupt. Families can rise to the occasion and have a great time, or not.

Many families, like the Pearces, have strong bonds. Others take on holiday gatherings amid hurt feelings or other sensitivities that add an undercurrent to interactions. Experts say that, regardless, holidays and family gatherings can be enjoyable.

"Holiday rituals, thoughtfully done, can be a source of bonding and strength," said Tina B. Tessina, a California psychotherapist and author of 13 books on relationships, including "Money, Sex and Kids." To de-stress the holidays, get intentional about them. Lighten up expectations, ask for help and understand what a partner and his family are thinking. A sense of humor helps and people who see themselves as a holiday troubleshooter instead of the architect of a perfect gathering will enjoy it more.

If you take stress out, there's more room for meaning, she noted.

Different is OK

"I think that the challenge really is respecting that you're going to have differences," said Karen Sherman, psychologist, author and educator in Long Island, N.Y. "Instead of fighting it, say, 'OK. We're different,' and learn about and appreciate what those differences are. Take in what you can and be appreciative and respectful, then create your own rituals with your significant other."

One complication is the relationship between one's significant other and his or her parents. "You have to be sensitive, caring and respectful. But that includes to yourself as well. If others overstep boundaries, it's OK to reassert yours, but again, respectfully."

While people like to talk, hearing may be the greatest skill of the season, said David Cunningham, communication expert with Landmark Education. "The one thing that leaves people upset is communication that doesn't get delivered; having something to say that nobody's listened to. A lot of times, we think what is said is most important. People need to be heard. Listening makes a difference."

Similarly, people become obsessed with what others at the table think of them. "I'm sitting with my in-laws, worried about that. If I flip it around, the day becomes 100 percent more joyful," he said. "Make sure they're confident in what you think of them. Go out of your way to acknowledge them, to thank them for something they've done. Two things happen. You quit worrying about what they're thinking. And it takes about 30 seconds of acknowledgement to have love be present."

If there are tensions, Tessina said to treat your family like they belong to someone else. "If it were the family of a dear friend of yours, you wouldn't get upset. You'd be polite and try to deflect things. That's a great way to handle your own family."

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