Stressed about seeing family for the holidays? Here are 7 tips to help you cope.

by Kaiser Permanente |

Whether it’s another political argument with your uncle or the absence of a loved one who passed, family holiday parties can be stressful. 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.

How to cope with stressful family situations

Managing stressful situations can seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s how to prepare for 7 difficult — but common — family stressors during the holidays.

Political disagreements

In some families, political discussions can lead to major family disagreements or arguments.

How to prepare:  Make the topic off-limits, if possible. Miller suggests reaching out to your family before your holiday gathering. Let them know that rather than talk about politics, you’d prefer to focus on what’s going on in their lives.

Day-of tactics: If politics do 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.

Financial stress of gift-giving

The pressure to give gifts can push some people to buy presents they can’t afford. Or some may skip holiday events altogether.

How to prepare:   “Don’t spend beyond your means just because it’s the holidays,” Miller says. Instead, take part in a way that makes sense for your finances. You can let the host know you and your family won’t be doing the gift exchange this year, but you look forward to watching. No need to overexplain — you can leave it at that. Or you can ask if your family wants to draw names to keep costs down. That way, everyone only gets one person a present.

Day-of tactics:  If you find yourself getting stressed over what gift you’re giving, try to stay present and grounded. Remember: You’re there to celebrate being together. It’s not about spending money. “In the end, most people won’t remember what sweater they got,” says Miller. “But they’ll remember you were there.”

Religious differences

The holidays may come with some religious traditions, like prayer or midnight Mass. These may feel uncomfortable if you and your family don’t hold the same beliefs.

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,” says Miller. If it feels safe to, let them know that you don’t feel comfortable with specific traditions.

Day-of tactics: If objecting feels inappropriate, Miller suggests practicing gratitude during religious activities. “During prayer, for instance, tune in to your private self and think about what you’re grateful for,” she says. That could be your family or having a place to go for the holidays.

Social stress of gatherings

Some family members prefer smaller gatherings to keep things more manageable. Others want to have big holiday parties and meals — which can be draining for introverts.

How to prepare:  To help manage the stress of family gatherings — big or small — set clear boundaries. If you’d rather keep it small, briefly explain your reason. And it’s still OK to ask that everyone who comes to your event gets vaccinated or wears a mask. You can also suggest spacing out celebrations or having virtual visits.

Day-of tactics:  Try coming prepared with simple one-liners. For example, “This is my comfort level,” or “We’re getting off-topic.” Miller says, “Less is more in these types of situations.” So, if someone asks why you’re missing a party or wearing a mask, you can have a quick one-liner ready to go. If you’re an introvert, try asking an extrovert to be your “party partner” to help with conversations.

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 talking to your family ahead of time to discuss how to honor loved ones. For example, you could go around the table and say one thing you loved about her. 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 difficult moments, take a few minutes to center yourself. Go for a walk, pet the dog, call a friend. Or pull up your favorite funny videos or cat photos 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. 

Not enough time to visit loved ones

Sometimes you need to visit multiple sides of your family. Or maybe it’s both of your divorced parents, plus your partner’s family. Juggling 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 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.’”

Someone who drinks too much

A family member who drinks too much alcohol may 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

Another way to help navigate holiday get-togethers is with 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.

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