Staff Perspective: Holiday Stress and Resilience

Staff Perspective: Holiday Stress and Resilience

Dr. Marjorie Weinstock

It’s hard for me to believe, but the winter holidays are fast approaching (it’s amazing how time flies!). While this is often thought of as a time of celebration, it can also be a stressful time of year for many military families. I was recently asked about resources for military families and holiday stress, and I thought this might make a good topic for a blog post. I’ve actually written about military families and separations during the holidays in the past (“Military Families and Holiday Separations”), and my colleague, Katie Medina, described 10 tips for surviving a holiday season while separated by military duty (“Not Home for the Holidays”) last year around this time – so I didn’t want to just create another list of tips and suggestions. Instead I started thinking about holiday stress in relation to the concept of resilience.

Resilience is also something I’ve written about before, as it’s become an important topic in the military family literature. I was excited to find an article published last year highlighting a resilience program developed by Purdue University’s College of Health and Human Sciences called Families Tackling Tough Times Together. This program was designed to support families by improving their ability to cope and strengthen resilience amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the program they developed a companion website:

The website includes a section called “Themed Collections” based on Froma Walsh’s family resilience theory, which we highlight in our trainings at CDP. In a nutshell, she identifies nine key traits that can reduce stress and decrease vulnerability in families. These family resilience factors have been conceptually organized into 3 domains of family functioning: 1) a family’s shared belief system, 2) their organizational patterns, and 3) their communication and problem-solving processes. These aren’t considered to be a fixed set of traits held by “resilient families,” but instead are thought of as dynamic processes involving strengths and resources families can develop to increase their resilience when faced with stressors and challenging situations.

After spending time perusing the website, I was really impressed with how much valuable content they created. The themed collections on the Families Tackling Tough Times Together website are divided into nine sections, each focusing on one of the key processes of family resilience. They all include a wealth of informational materials and activities for both civilian and military families to help strengthen family resilience. This information includes a description of the topic, a video introduction, and downloadable materials for children, youth, young adults, older adults, and families (available in both English and Spanish), which include various exercises that can easily fit into daily life. These nine areas are:

Shared Belief System

  1. Making meaning of challenges (Our Family Will Get Through This! Making Meaning of Adversity) – stressors and challenges are best dealt with when they’re approached as a shared experience that can be tackled together as a family
  2. Maintaining a positive outlook (Our Family Can Do This! Sharing a Positive Outlook) – increasing positivity and reaffirming strengths helps families increase their level of confidence in their ability to tackle problems
  3. Valuing transcendence/spirituality (We Can Get Stronger! Transcendence and Spirituality) – by seeing themselves as part of something bigger than themselves, families are able to take a larger view of challenges and better cope with stress

Organizational Patterns

  1. Flexibility to adapt (Our Family is Adaptable! Flexibility to Change) – resilient families are able to maintain continuity while adapting to challenges
  2. Connectedness (We Care About Each Other! Connectedness) – families with strong connections encourage and support one another in times of stress
  3. Social resources (We Take Action! Mobilizing Social and Economic Resources) – extended family members, friends, and the local (or military) community can provide support for families and serve as a lifeline during stressful times

Communication & Problem-solving Processes

  1. Clear messaging (We Tell Each Other the Truth! Clear, Consistent Messages) – resilience is strengthened when families “say what they mean and mean what they say”
  2. Emotional sharing (We Share Our Feelings Constructively! Open Emotional Expression) – families who openly communicate about their emotions are able to share a range of feelings, practice empathy, and provide comfort to one another
  3. Collaborative problem-solving (Our Family is Creative! Collaborative Problem Solving) – collaborative problem-solving helps families engage in shared decision making, meet in the middle on differences, and allow everyone to feel that their input is valued

While the Families Tackling Tough Times Together website was developed specifically with COVID-19 in mind, I believe that the content can easily be applicable to a wide range of stressful situations that military families might experience, including the aforementioned holiday stress. If you’re like me, and are unfamiliar with this website, I encourage you to check it out!

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Marjorie Weinstock, Ph.D., is a Senior Military Behavioral Health Psychologist for the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences at Bethesda, Maryland.

Ruiz, Y., Wadsworth, S. M. M., Elias, C. M., Marceau, K., Purcell, M. L., Redick, T. S., Richards, E. A., & Schlesinger-Devlin, E. (2020). Ultra-rapid development and deployment of a family resilience program during the COVID-19 pandemic: Lessons learned from families tackling tough times together. Journal of Military, Veteran and Family Health 6(Suppl 2), 35-43.
Walsh, F. (2016). Strengthening family resilience (3rd ed). Guilford Press.