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No season abounds with joy, celebration, and yearning more than the holidays. At the same time, no season is more fraught with anxiety, depression, and despair.

Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Eid al-Fitr–almost every cultural celebration focuses on bringing light to this darkest time of the year. When you encounter difficult situations amid the festivity, here are some ways to shed light and avoid the heat.

My client, a divorc?e with two young children, recently asked me what to do about an inflammatory challenge from her ex-husband. He wants to spend more time with the kids over the holidays, and hinted that he would delay child support payments unless she agreed. Although she has a lump-sum divorce settlement that I am managing for the children’s education, child support is a crucial part of her cash flow. How should she handle this? Encourage your client to practice gentle forbearance in this season of forgiveness and generosity. Her ex’s passive-aggressive behavior may be just a result of stress about having limited contact with his kids during this family-focused time. Instead of making himself vulnerable by asking openly for what he wants, he has tried to preempt possible rejection by issuing this threat.

Even though it will be an emotional trial for your client, I would suggest that she get together with him in a relaxed setting and try to work out a holiday schedule that meets his needs and hers. If they succeed in reaching a compromise, she will not only create a positive connection, but also set a precedent that will benefit her kids in the future. That would be a wonderful holiday gift, since nothing is more nurturing to children of divorce than parents who get along with a minimum of conflict.

For many years, I have felt depressed and listless over the holidays. This time we’re due to spend the long holiday weekend with my wife’s family, and I’m dreading it. I like her folks, but know I won’t be able to shake the blues. Don’t suggest that I make time to get together with my own family–my parents are dead, and my two siblings live overseas. Any other ideas? I think you have to take proactive steps to lift yourself out of your holiday depression; otherwise you’ll still be singing the blues while everyone else is caroling “Joy to the World.”

As a therapist, I would suggest that you consider a short period of counseling sessions that allow you to explore, experience, and let go of some of your unfinished grief and mourning around the loss of your parents, your siblings’ distance, and your frustrated longing for past family togetherness (whether wished-for or real).

At the same time, ask yourself what elements of holiday closeness and celebration appeal to you most. Is there something you can pursue to nurture yourself during this season? A cherished friend with whom you could reunite? A child you could introduce to holiday traditions that meant a lot during your own childhood, such as going to see “The Nutcracker” or trimming a tree? Alternatively, try something totally different, such as attending a holiday concert at a place of worship where you’ve never been before. You might also consider volunteering at a nursing home or a soup kitchen. This could not only help lift you out of your funk, but provide more perspective on the advantages you enjoy.

Finally, visualize how you might more pleasurably spend the holidays with your in-laws. How about thinking up an activity that would involve members of the family whom you particularly like? Or negotiate with your spouse for time to yourself during the weekend, so you can do something that recharges your batteries.

Whatever approach you choose, try to make time and space to grieve for your own absent loved ones and to comfort and nourish yourself. This should help you give your best to your wife and her family, and be more at peace with yourself.

My client’s father left money in trust for his grandchild’s college education, naming the child’s mother as trustee. The mom, a widow who has been my client for a few months, mentioned to me that she plans to use trust funds to buy the kid a four-wheel ATV as a holiday present. I’m not on board with this, but she talked about how Grandpa would have wanted the boy to feel loved and taken care of, and to have the same toys as the neighbors’ kids. Since she has discretionary power over these funds, should I keep my mouth shut, or try to persuade her to take a more balanced view? During this emotionally charged season, it’s important to empathize with a parental tendency to overgive to children. First, see if there is some history behind your client’s point of view by asking whether she felt fulfilled or deprived as a child during the holidays. Listen carefully to her before inserting your own opinions. Is she anxious not to deny her son anything he desires, or anything the Joneses’ kids are enjoying?

Once you understand her more fully, you may be able to help her see that protecting her son’s college fund could be a much smarter gift in the long run. Urge her to keep the money where it is, and find ways to express her caring that don’t involve overindulgence in expensive gifts. Help her understand that teaching children to live within limits is the best way to prevent them from becoming reckless spenders.

I would encourage her to talk to her son about this. She can express her love directly to him, along with her regret that she can’t give him everything he wants because of the need to ensure he can afford a good education. By striving to understand what motivates her, you may be able to sway her from her impulse to gratify her son and herself at the expense of his future.

A couple in their 50s, a widower and a divorced woman, asked me to help them iron out money issues before they marry. While in my office, they got into a major argument about how to handle the holidays with their extended families. They are of different faiths. One wants a simple celebration with close family, and the other plans to entertain lavishly throughout the season. It was clearly an emotional issue for both of them. How should I have dealt with it? The blending of families with different religious, ethnic, or cultural traditions is a very difficult challenge, so don’t feel chagrined if you were at a loss. Each of your clients no doubt felt that his or her experience was normal, while the other’s seemed utterly strange and foreign. Given these preconceptions, it can be very hard to build a bridge between the two.

In the interest of future harmony, I would try to teach them empathetic communication skills. (For ideas, see my May 2002 column, “Hear! Hear!,” at If you’d prefer not to tackle this task yourself, you might suggest that they consult a good couples therapist to discuss the art of listening well. This will help them learn to get inside one another’s heart more deeply instead of locking into a power struggle.

Once they have gained more respect and compassion for each other’s perspective and experience, they may be able to come up with a creative solution to the holiday dilemma. For example, if one is Jewish and the other Christian, they might note that the eight days of Chanukah are followed by eight days between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. It should be possible for each partner to celebrate appropriately during the period that means most to him or her, while the other tries to enter into that world with generosity and grace. If they are able to give each other this gift of acceptance and love, it bodes well for their intended union.

A client of mine appears to feel that the stock market’s recent performance is a gift straight from Santa Claus. He wants to redirect a big chunk of his assets into risky sectors as a sign of his renewed optimism. It seems to me that this excitement ties in with a surge of energy and generosity he usually evinces during the holiday season. Is there such a thing as “holiday irrational exuberance”? More importantly, is there a way I can slow him down to help him consider his choices more sensibly? It seems reasonable to me that people who feel expansive during the holiday season might extend this state of mind to their investment outlook.

Have you discussed this with him? If not, make some time to hear him talk about it. Ask what the holidays meant to him when he was growing up. Is his exuberance a way of replicating his family’s high-spirited celebration of the season, or is it a reaction to feeling deprived and lonely while his classmates were enjoying family festivities?

As much as you can, validate his desire to feel hopeful after the recent downers of economic contraction, world conflict, personal vulnerability, and disillusionment with corporate governance. Then, see if there are ways he can celebrate his newfound optimism without making financial decisions that seem overly risky to you.

Take care not to rain on his parade too soon, since people in a state of euphoria often react defensively to negative comments. To avoid being viewed as a killjoy or a curmudgeon, slow things down. In the spirit of understanding him better, allow him the time and space to fully express his enthusiasm. If you are successful in managing this process, his wave of financial exuberance will crest. You may then be able to make wise suggestions that he can actually hear.

Holiday stress can strain family relationships, emotional stability, and decision-making processes nearly to the breaking point. At a time of year when many people are beset by longing, loss, and heartache while others are filled with cheer, sociability, and unbounded optimism, your role as the compassionate voice of common sense is particularly crucial.

Take more time for the activities that nurture you deeply, so you can avoid the highs and lows of this very volatile season. By remaining grounded, you will provide a valuable gift to yourself, your loved ones, and your clients–a gift that keeps on giving during the holidays and well into the new year.