THE BLOG
12/23/2013 10:14 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2014

Films for Understanding Family Over the Holidays

The holiday season is a time for merriment, togetherness, joy and expressions of love as well as the less fortunate flip sides: sadness, abandonment, disappointment and rage. As bad as it can get, the most stressful variables about the holidays are not the mall scenes, crazy traffic, or festive marathon events, rather it's the more complicated pieces of the puzzle, one's own family and/or extended family dynamics that can create the most agita.

Family congregating to celebrate a prescribed happy holiday season can have the opposite effect of what's intended. It can elevate one's cortisol level which is the stress hormone linked to the fight or flee responses innate to us all. Cortisol levels are raised by good and bad stressors, but we're talking here about what happens when our insecurities are aroused -- especially when loaded family dynamics are dysfunctional. It's what can make being in a room with clan members feel unbearable.

Fortunate for us, the film canon provides depictions of holiday events that are humorous and heartfelt, even instructional, balancing realism with frivolity. So after the feasting, during quiet digesting time, when passive viewing is called for and a movie fits the bill, here are a few suggestions for some 'theratainment.' Intended to pique your interest without giving away too much of the plot, let's take a look into the cinematic mirror for portrayals of family togetherness for guidance on how to take vulnerable times in stride.

Disclaimer:'theratainment' is meant to be light-hearted and inspirational, more than anything else, but shouldn't be confused with the hard work of face-to-face therapy. This blog is intended to be therapeutic; at best surely not a substitute for the nitty-gritty nature of therapy particularly if you, or someone you know, are feeling suicidal or abuse is the problem. If you, or someone else, is in trouble this alone is not enough. Reaching out to make a connection with a mental health professional is advised.

It's A Wonderful Life (1946) - Who can forget this touching family classic? The pressures of finances, work and life are too much for Jimmy Stewart who plays a husband, father, and banker. He struggles with remaining jolly for the sake of his family and appearances. It all becomes too much for him until he realizes how the support of family and/or community can help a person cope with and get through hard, difficult times in life.

Home for the Holidays (1995) - This dramedy, with main character Holly Hunter, tells the story of a family who have lost touch with each other, struggling to maintain civility during times of togetherness. It also touches on the importance of family acceptance.

The Family Stone (2005) - Sarah Jessica Parker plays the fiancé of Dermot Mulroney's character. She goes home with him for the holidays desperately trying to be accepted by his family. This particular theme, of living up to other's expectations adds pressure to the holidays. In the end, relationships get shifted around, health concerns arise, and yet it shows how supportive family can be. With a proactive mind set and problem solving attitude most problems can be sorted out.

Four Christmases (2008) - A couple played by Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn struggle with availing themselves to attend four sets of parents holiday gatherings (due to divorce). This highlights the difficulties and challenges that come of stretching yourself thin and attempting to appease family members during this prescribed happy time. In the end these differences cement the couple in their relationship.

The Fitzgerald's Family Christmas (2012) - Lead actor Ed Burns plays an all around 'good guy' who runs the family business and tries to do the right thing, almost to a fault. There is the possibility that the job has become too safe a place where he can hide out from the harder work of relationships. His challenge is to address the fragmentation of their family due to his absenteeism from the family. He navigates around different family members hoping they will include him in their holiday gathering. Members of the family are at odds about how to accomplish this. Complicated emotions arise, however conflict also opens up the possibility for forgiveness.

So how does one navigate around the stressors of divorced, fragmented, or dysfunctional families around the holidays? Set good limits for yourself. Make realistic goals and pace yourself. Take breaks and have an exit strategy if you need one for self care.

Remember too, every life requires some heavy lifting. There's a difference in taking on challenges with grace and nobility, like a Sherpa would scaling the Himalayan Mountains, as opposed to making your contests a burden like the proverbial schlepper, who is beaten and worn down by the challenges life presents. The choice is yours.

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