Whether it’s the fear of another political argument with your uncle or feeling the absence of a loved one who passed — family holiday parties can be a stressful experience. To help you tackle some of these tough situations, Leigh Miller, LCSW, a therapist and social worker at Kaiser Permanente, shares tips on how to cope with 7 difficult — but common — family stressors during the holidays.
1. Political disagreements
In some families, political discussions can lead to major family disagreements or blowouts.
How to prepare: Make the topic off-limits, if possible. Miller suggests reaching out to your family before your holiday gathering to let them know you’d prefer not to talk about politics. Instead, tell them that you’d rather hear about what’s going on in their lives.
Day-of tactics: If politics still come up, gently remind your family that you’d prefer not to discuss the topic. You can also excuse yourself from the conversation and take a short break. Go for a 15-minute walk or chat with another family member.
2. Financial stress of gift-giving
The pressure to give gifts can push some people to buy presents they can’t afford — or skip holiday events out of embarrassment.
How to prepare: “Don’t spend beyond your means just because it’s the holidays,” Miller says. Instead, participate in a way that makes sense for your finances. “If you don’t have the means, you can let the host know you and your family won’t be participating in the gift exchange this year, but you’re looking forward to watching.” No need to overexplain, just leave it at that. Or you can ask if your family is interested in doing a Secret Santa gift exchange to keep costs down. That way everyone draws names and gets one person a present.
Day-of tactics: Work on staying present and grounded if you start to feel anxious or upset. “Tune in to the sensations in your body and focus your attention on the bottom of your feet,” she says. Think about your feet connecting with the floor. Relax your shoulders and focus on your breath going in and out.
3. Religious differences
You and your family don’t hold the same religious beliefs, and you feel a little uncomfortable participating in certain religious traditions during the holidays.
How to prepare: Your family dynamics play a major role in how you tackle this. “If you can, it’s best to be as transparent and authentic as possible with your family about your religious views,” says Miller. If it feels safe to, let them know that you don’t feel comfortable with specific traditions like prayer or midnight mass.
Day-of tactics: If it feels unacceptable to share your beliefs, Miller suggests practicing gratitude during religious activities. “During prayer, for instance, tune into your private self and think about what you’re grateful for, like your family or having a place to go for the holidays,” she says.
4. Social stress of gatherings
Some family members are eager to celebrate with big holiday parties and meals. Others may prefer smaller gatherings due to COVID-19 — or to keep things more manageable.
How to prepare: To help manage the stress of family gatherings — big or small — set clear boundaries. It’s OK to ask that everyone who comes to your event gets vaccinated or wears a mask. If you’d rather keep it small, briefly explain your reason. You can also offer alternatives, such as spacing out celebrations with different relatives or having virtual visits.
Day-of tactics: Try using simple one-liners you can prepare ahead of time. For example, “This is my comfort level.” or “We’re getting off-topic.” Miller says that, “Less is more in these types of situations.” So, if someone asks why you’re not going to an upcoming gathering or why you’re wearing a mask, you can have a quick one-liner ready to go.
5. Grief and loss of loved ones
While you might want to honor the deceased openly during a holiday event, it may be too difficult for others.
How to prepare: Miller recommends approaching your family ahead of time to talk about ways you can honor loved ones. “For example, I’d like to celebrate mom this holiday by going around the table and each of us saying one thing we loved about her,” Miller says. Ask others how they feel about it, and make it clear there’s room for negotiation. If they push back, suggest something smaller like putting up a photo of her or making her favorite food.
Day-of tactics: In stressful or difficult moments, take a few minutes to center yourself. Go for a walk, pet the dog, call a friend. Or pull up your favorite cat photos or YouTube videos on your phone — whatever helps you.* The key is to have a few of these stress-relieving items on hand so you can use them when you need to.
6. Not enough time to visit loved ones
Maybe you need to visit multiple sides of your family, or both of your divorced parents, plus your partner’s family. Trying to juggle all these events can leave you feeling stressed, guilt-ridden, and exhausted.
How to prepare: “If you have multiple events to attend, it’s best to let each host know about your time limitations in advance,” Miller says. And be honest with yourself about what you can actually handle. You don’t have to say yes to everything. “Give yourself permission to say no,” she says.
Day-of tactics: When you get to the party, remind your loved ones about your schedule. “But don’t do it in a way where it feels like the clock is being set and you’re counting down until you leave,” she says. “Rather, approach it more like ‘I’m so grateful I get to spend this time with you today, even though it’s just a few hours.’”
7. Someone who drinks too much
A family member drinks too much alcohol and starts to get offensive, annoying, or aggressive.
How to prepare: Give yourself permission to leave if things aren’t going well. “That means not relying on other people to get to or from the party,” Miller says. So, drive yourself or call a ride service. Set yourself up so you have the freedom to take off if you need to.
Day-of tactics: “If someone is overdrinking and making you feel uncomfortable, steer clear of them,” says Miller. Trying to be rational with them in that moment is not good for you, and it’s just going to cause more conflict. If it gets too tense, give yourself permission to leave.
A simple self-care practice
One additional way to practice self-care as you navigate holiday get-togethers, whether virtual or in-person, is using a technique called bookending. “Do something ahead of time to help take care of yourself,” Miller explains. “Maybe that’s some kind of deep breathing. Then, after you’ve finished the event, do a happy dance, play your favorite song, or call your best friend. Do something to celebrate that ‘I did that, I made it through.’”
And at the end of the day, try to accept your family for who they are. This will help you find the tools you need to cope. “Remember, you can’t change other people,” Miller says. “You can only control your actions.” So give yourself the gift of acceptance this holiday season.
*Kaiser Permanente does not endorse the medications or products mentioned. Any trade names listed are for easy identification only.
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