How to Avoid Holiday Family Stress
Getting everyone under one roof for the holidays can be fun, but it can also be stressful. Here's how to avoid a dysfunctional family Christmas and keep your holidays happy.
By Regina Boyle Wheeler
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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The holidays are a time when many families gather to celebrate and enjoy each other’s company. But even for the most loving families, all that togetherness can lead to holiday stress and conflict. Suddenly, your “perfect” holiday is teetering on the edge of a dysfunctional family Christmasagain. This year, resolve to offset any holiday stress by dealing with prickly family issues well before the holidays.
Although every family has its unique dynamics and challenges, there are some common issues that can lead to holiday stress. Here are some typical problems and suggestions for finding solutions.
Holiday Stressor No. 1: Unresolved Issues
“Holidays are particularly ripe for stress when you bring families together with historical unresolved baggage,” says Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Marin County, Calif. “Throwing people together who have unresolved disputes or who simply don’t like each other can be a problem.” Add alcohol to the mix and say hello to your dysfunctional family Christmas, Kwanzaa, or Hanukkah.
Perhaps your brother still hasn’t repaid that loan from five years ago and you think the holidays are a good opportunity to confront him. “That’s a big mistake,” says LeslieBeth Wish, EdD, LCSW, a psychologist and licensed clinical social worker in Sarasota, Fla. Don’t use the holidays to “settle the score — it’s not going to work,” she warns. The conversation may start out calmly, but can quickly escalate into complaints and accusations.
To create a more peaceful holiday, Wish suggests sowing the seeds of good feelings long before the event. Reconnecting before the holiday with e-mails or letters can break the ice with a person with whom you’ve had a strained relationship in the past, she says. After reconnecting and then spending time together during the celebration, your perspective on the relationship and previous arguments with your relative may even change for the better.
Holiday Stressor No. 2: Family Disagreements
Political or religious disagreements or other hot topics are also common sources of holiday stress. In advance of the gathering, agree that certain subjects are off limits. Wish suggests assigning a child to “police” the conversation (he or she will think it’s fun). If the banned subject comes up, the youngster simply says, “Uncle Louie, no hot topics!” That can diffuse the situation, inject some humor, and keep the conversation upbeat, Wish advises.
If things still become too stressful, Kift suggests you simply take a breather. “If you feel anxious, take slow breaths in through the nose and out through your mouth or excuse yourself and step outside to get some fresh air.”
Here are more of Kift’s tips for protecting your sanity:
- If an argument is occurring, avoid taking sides.
- Monitor your alcohol intake to keep a clear head in case things heat up. “You’ll be better equipped to avoid getting pulled into the drama,” Kift advises.
- Maintain healthy boundaries. Says Kift, “You have a right to leave any situation that feels toxic, even if it’s your family.”
Holiday Stressor No. 3: The Dinner and Gift Exchange
Exchanging gifts may be part of the holidays, but this tradition can represent another source of holiday stress. Perhaps you and other family members can’t afford to give everyone a present. Wish points out that in most families there’s often a dominant person — “the master at the helm” — who organizes and coordinates holiday gatherings. Talk to that person ahead of time about your situation. Explain that you need their help to make adjustments. One suggestion: Have everyone draw names out of a hat and then buy a gift for just that one family member to keep costs down.
Apart from gift giving, the person hosting the family gathering may also feel stressed about the responsibility of pulling the whole event together. Often times, this person feels pressured to please everyone. Wish says to give up your notion of perfection and delegate. “Everyone — I mean everyone — [should] help with setting the table, cutting veggies, and so on.”
Holiday Stressor No. 4: Outdated Rituals
Just because your family has “always done it that way” doesn’t mean traditions and rituals can’t be changed when they no longer make sense. “Sometimes traditions can turn into ruts,” Wish notes.
Perhaps everyone always gathers at Aunt Lucy’s for Thanksgiving, but her place is now too small to comfortably accommodate new spouses and babies. Discuss the situation with the rest of the family before the holiday and come up with a solution. Have Aunt Lucy’s most trusted ally in the family bring it up to her. Perhaps having the gathering somewhere else, but using Lucy’s prized china or silverware, will make everyone happy.
Holiday Stressor No. 5: Absent Family Members
Keep in mind that the holidays can intensify feelings of loss. Family members might not be able to attend because of illness, service in the military, financial hardship, or other reasons. Wish says to acknowledge their absence by including them. Set a place for them at the table, use technology like Skype to get in touch, or write a group e-mail or letter, she advises.
If a beloved family member has died, Kift says it’s a mistake to ignore or minimize the loss. Be honest about feelings and share stories and anecdotes about your loved one. “It can be very connecting and healing for family members to mourn together in this way,” she explains. Don’t be afraid to talk, cry, and laugh.
Holiday Stressor No. 6: Being Single
If you’ve never been married or are newly divorced, you could feel out of place or particularly alone at a big family gathering. Wish suggests finding common ground with your married counterparts and talking about the here and now, not the past.
The bottom line for everyone: “Don’t look at the holidays as something to be endured. You’re in charge of your happiness. Find a path to pleasure, and find a way to connect,” says Wish.
Video: Holiday Stress
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