7 Tips to Navigate Stressful Family Dynamics During the Holidays

The holiday season is a time of celebration, gratitude, and spending quality time with loved ones, but it is also for many a season of major stress; the main culprit being stressful family dynamics. While you can’t trade your family for a new one, or zap them every time they misbehave, all hope is not lost. You can take these steps to reduce the stress of family over the holidays and focus more of your energy on the joy.

1. Set Realistic Expectations
One of the keys to managing stress during the holidays is to set realistic expectations. Remember that no family is perfect, and every family has its quirks and issues. If Aunt Betty is a functional alcoholic, she will not put her addiction on hold just because it’s Christmas. That being said, you get to choose how you will respond to Aunt Betty. If your dad is known for groan-worthy dad jokes, expect that they will come and may not be a battle worth having.

Be prepared for disagreements, differences in opinion, and some uncomfortable behaviors. No matter how well you plan, how great of gifts you buy, what you prepare for the family to eat, or how many conversations you have with loved ones, you have no control over their choices or the reality that stress will come. By accepting that not every moment will be idyllic, you can reduce the pressure you put on yourself and your family.

2. Communicate Openly
If there are specific concerns you anticipate, consider addressing them before the holiday gatherings. The best time to confront challenging behaviors is almost always in a calm moment rather than in the heat of rising tensions. If Uncle Bob swears and you prefer he put a lid on it while mixed company is in your home, talk about it beforehand. Be honest but respectful when discussing sensitive topics, and try to find common ground.

Challenge yourself to be direct if you tend to be a people pleaser or peacemaker. “Uncle Bob, I know you talk this way most of the time—no judgement about how you choose to live—but the grandkids are not used to swearing, and it would create stress for them and their parents if it comes up. Please censor yourself for this time.” Don’t dance around the subject or sugarcoat topics because they are challenging—this leads to greater likelihood of misunderstandings and continued frustration. “Lucy, I know you don’t get along with our brother-in-law, but could you please consider minimizing your interactions with him. When you get into debates with him it makes everyone feel uncomfortable.” It’s essential to listen actively to your family members as well, as this can help foster understanding and empathy.

3. Establish Boundaries
Setting boundaries is a valuable skill when dealing with challenging dynamics especially with family. Define what limits and boundaries you want to set. Determine what you’re comfortable with and what you’re not, and communicate your boundaries clearly but kindly.

If you have trouble figuring out how to define the boundary ask yourself, “What specific behavior is troublesome to me? What am I wishing would not happen again? How could this person behave differently that would feel ok to me? For example, If Grandpa likes to bring up politics and stir the pot with cousins who are on the other side of the fence, how might you set a boundary? Perhaps setting the tone for the whole family asking for politics to be kept out of conversation. Or maybe specifically addressing Grandpa and asking him to avoid bringing up X during the holiday get together. Share why you would appreciate the boundary being respected. Ie: It upsets me when the cousins get upset by political conversations and leave early; I’d like to focus on connecting as a family during this time.

Lastly, remember that a true boundary is a request for change/ or a limit, but it must include how you will respond if it is violated. For example, “If you bring up abortion at the dinner table, I will change the subject and ask you to stop. If it happens again I may leave the room/ ask you to leave/ not invite you to the next extended family get together/ etc.” Figuring out a plan for your responses will empower you in the moment to behave calmly and maintain your boundaries. Setting these clear expectations will also reduce (but not totally remove) the likelihood that the family member will disrespect your rules. Boundaries can help you maintain your emotional well-being and prevent situations from escalating.

4. Practice Self-Care
During the holiday season, it’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle, neglecting your own needs. Make self-care a priority by setting aside time for activities that relax and rejuvenate you. Self-care includes the basics like maintaining your nutrition, getting enough sleep, and extends to fun activities as well.
Keep in mind the additional stress (even good stress) may necessitate an increase of self-care. For example, introverts should prepare to be extra exhausted or overwhelmed if engaging in parties or large family gatherings with extended people time. Plan extra time to yourself to recharge. Whether it’s reading a book, taking a bubble bath, exercising, or crafting, self-care can help you manage stress and approach family interactions with a calmer mindset.

5. Focus on Gratitude
While it’s natural to notice and be frustrated or hurt by family dynamics that challenge you, try to shift your perspective toward gratitude. Reflect on the positive aspects of your family and the holidays, such as the love and support they offer, cherished traditions, or the opportunity to reconnect certain relatives, the meaning you attribute to the season, and your own blessings.

If all else fails, sometimes it can even help to practice gratitude for the challenges you don’t have to face regularly. For example, thinking to yourself, “I am so grateful I am not married to a narcissist like Aunt Jan, despite his faults, at least my husband doesn’t cut me off every time I try to share my feelings.” Cultivating gratitude can help you maintain a more positive outlook.

6. Stay Mindful and Present
When you find yourself in tense situations, try to stay present and avoid dwelling on past conflicts or worrying about future ones. It’s been said depression lies in the past and anxiety lies in the future. All of our families have hurt us at some point some unintentionally, and others maliciously. Nursing those wounds does not bring you greater peace or protect you from the possibility that you may be hurt again this holiday. Focus on the current moment, your surroundings, and the people around you. Take deep breaths and press your feet into the ground and your butt into your chair to help ground yourself and relax if tensions start to rise.

Staying in the present moment also helps you to respond from a rational place, rather than in your trauma-brain. Our brains are wired to recognize potential threats and react based on what we have learned from the past in order to help us survive. It’s good to jump out of the way if we see a venomous snake on the ground, but less useful to leap backwards when we come across a garden hose—but trauma brain does not distinguish the difference. When we engage our trauma brain, we tend to respond with the fight, flight, freeze responses which don’t address the problem or bring us greater peace. If you have had painful interactions with a particular family member before, you may have to practice staying in the present, so you don’t autopilot to reacting like you are in the previous painful moment. Practicing staying present will help you respond to challenges with greater clarity and composure.

7. Seek Support
If the stress of family dynamics becomes overwhelming, don’t hesitate to seek support. Reach out to friends, a therapist, or a support group to share your feelings and gain perspective. Sometimes, talking to someone outside the family can provide valuable insights and emotional relief.

If you employ these tips, we know you can have a much less stressful and more joyful holiday season!

September 2023, Jenny Beall, Counselor, Threads of Hope Counseling