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CNN Today

Surviving Family Tension During the Holidays

Aired December 21, 2000 - 4:29 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: So, actually, as it turns out, getting there may be only half the problem. Being there can sometimes be worse, especially when you have those little family tensions at the holidays. Joining us now: Susan Levy, who is a marriage and family therapist, offering us a little bit of help and advice on dealing with that.

It really is true, though. I mean, we talk about all the difficulties of getting ready for the holiday. But we don't talk about that moment where, there you are actually with the family, and sometimes this can be the most difficult of all.

SUSAN LEVY, MARRIAGE AND FAMILY THERAPIST: A lot of it is difficult. It depends really on how you have celebrated the holidays before: what kind of traditions that you have. A lot of people have expectations that it's going to be -- produce conflict. And that's what people are most afraid of: conflict.

I think, if people have had any losses during the year, if there have been divorce, if there have been any deaths, that can make it a difficult time. If there's been conflict within the family, if there have been hospitalizations, chronic illness, those are things that can cause a lot of conflict and expectations.

CHEN: Things that built up over the year...

LEVY: Yes.

CHEN: ... actually sort of explode there. But what is it about the holidays themselves that seem to sort of bring out the most -- the greatest part of the tension?

LEVY: Well, a lot of it is the expectation. Everybody outside looks like they're having a good time, like they're happy, like they have this ideal family. And so people want to feel that excitement and to feel that joy.

CHEN: Our family is just like the "Brady Bunch."

LEVY: Right. Exactly. And it's just not true. Most families, and most people that are going to be with their families, have a lot of anxiety, and feel guilt, feel depression about the way things weren't exactly the way they really would have liked them to be. CHEN: Is it childhood things that sort of come back? We as adults, when we get together with our parents at the holidays, it all seems to bring out those old lingering hurts that you have from some time ago.

LEVY: Well, sometimes that happens because, any time you go back to your family as an adult, you regress at times into kind of old childhood behavior. You kind of remember what it was like during those other holidays.

CHEN: Yes, but your parents also regress into parent behavior.

LEVY: Right. Exactly. Exactly. So that expectation is some of it. But it really -- a lot depends on the kind of relationship you have with each family member: with your parents, if there is conflict with your mother, if there is conflict with your father or siblings. A lot of it depends on what's going on at that time in the family.

CHEN: Does the spouse tend to actually have more trouble with the in-laws or with their own parents at that point?

LEVY: It really depends how their relationship has been before that. If they've had a good relationship with the in-laws, then most likely they'll have a good time. If they are in conflict, if there is conflict with the in-laws, then they might have a difficult time. It really varies about what's happening right then.

CHEN: So what do you do? I mean, how do you deal with that sort of tension at the holidays?

LEVY: Well, what I would suggest is that you talk openly about...

CHEN: Oh, come on, openly? You're going to talk openly at the holiday about all the things that really made you mad all these years ago?

LEVY: Well, maybe even going just without any expectations, going there and thinking about just having a good time. You know, making some new tradition, just trying to remember the times that you did have a good time in your family, and maybe -- whether it's going to the movies or going out and looking at the lights -- whatever -- doing something that would be fun.

CHEN: So I sort of did cut you off there. But, I mean, it seems to me that that might be the most difficult time to go back and say: Mom, remember when you did the...

LEVY: That's not a good time to do that.

CHEN: Not the time for that?

LEVY: No, I wouldn't suggest doing that then.

CHEN: No confronting those old issues. Now, when...

LEVY: Right. Deal with your therapist with that.

(LAUGHTER)

CHEN: Now, when you get to the point where the parent or the child brings something up that you think should be off limits, what do you do then?

LEVY: Well, I would ask my parent or the child -- before, I would say: How would you feel right now about talking about this? Just check it out, because if it's not OK, you can't force something to happen.

CHEN: Can you ignore that part of the conversation? Can you just go off and say: You know what, it's time to make cookies?

LEVY: You could do that. Or you could also say: You know, I really don't feel like talking about that right now. I would like to talk about it later, but not right now.

CHEN: Maybe in March.

LEVY: Right. Right.

CHEN: Susan Levy, thanks very much for being with us. We hope your holidays with your family will be fun...

LEVY: Thank you.

CHEN: ... and nonconfrontational.

LEVY: Same to you. Thanks.

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