How to Not Let Family Stress Ruin Your Holiday Season

How to Not Let Family Stress Ruin Your Holiday Season


As the year starts to come to an end, some of us are filled with excitement! The holidays are finally here! Family traditions, Christmas lights, holiday food, and all types of festivities. What’s not to like?

If you aren’t one of those people, you are not alone! Anticipation of the holidays in fact brings many people more stress and dread than the jolly and cheer one might expect. If you have toxic family members or multiple families demanding your presence around this time, you know that the holidays can be the most challenging time of the year.  

Here are some strategies to stop family stress from ruining your holiday season:


1.     Be honest about what you want vs. what you feel obliged to do.

What we want to do is often much different from what we feel obliged to do. When there is too big a difference between the two, it is likely that you are going to be left with feelings of frustration and resentment. Be honest with yourself about what your wants and needs are. Bringing awareness to your needs (as well as those of your partner and children if you have them) will help you reflect on what you can do to make the holiday manageable, and hopefully even enjoyable.

We are taught that we should be giving, happy, and gracious during this time of the year. So many of us try to achieve this even if it is at our own expense as past years have shown us time and time again. Feelings of guilt and shame may arise when you consider trying something new for the holiday. These are powerful feelings that can be very influential in your decision-making. But try taking your guilt, worry, or fear of being selfish out of the equation for just a moment and see what comes to mind. If your family is important to you and you want to find a way to see them, great! There are things you can do to take away the stress and make the event better than it was last year.

However, if following through with your holiday “obligations” leads to a degree of emotional harm that outweighs the initial feelings of guilt you sought to avoid, it may be best to try something new. Loyally heading home just to be berated, worn down, or grieved isn’t in anyone’s best interest. Perhaps the thought of spending the holiday at your own home, a friend’s place, on a cruise, or even on the other side of the world might help you achieve the giving, happy, and gracious attitude you’ve always hoped to experience. Give yourself space to reimagine the holidays.


2.     Honor your needs and find a solution that feels right to you.

Remember that you are an adult. This might seem like an odd reminder, but we tend to regress during the holiday into our parent’s children. Yes, you will always be their child, but you do not need to take on the child role. You can still show respect to your parents while also asserting your own agency in how you want to spend the holiday. For instance, instead of trying to please everyone by going to your parents house Christmas morning and your partner’s family’s house Christmas evening, tell everyone that they are welcome to come to your home Christmas afternoon! Or instead of agreeing to spend the whole day with your family, which is bound to make your blood boil, tell them that you will be there for the morning festivities but then have dinner plans with your friends. You have the ability to set your own agenda and take control of the holiday.

Once you have decided how you want to spend the holiday, it is a great time to discuss with your partner, your friend, or your therapist about what you are and are not willing to do. Together you can develop strategies designed to ensure you maintain your autonomy and avoid getting pulled into negative family dynamics.  Planning ahead will also help you feel more in control over your situation and ease some of the stress you would normally carry with you through the holiday.

3.     Set clear boundaries for yourself and others.

Building boundaries is important in all relationships. It may take some trial and error, but setting clear and appropriate boundaries with family can lead to more positive feelings and stronger relationships. Here are some strategies to compassionately and respectfully create boundaries with your family during the holidays:

Identify your needs - As stated above, decide what is going to be most manageable and enjoyable for you. Whether that means strategizing how to manage your expectations at the gathering, shortening the length of your stay, visiting them on a different day, or calling off the visit all together, choose what most aligns with your needs. If you have a partner, make sure you are both on the same page and find ways to support each other in this process.

Clearly communicate your plans - Once you have decided how you want to spend the holiday, clearly communicate this to your family as soon as possible. Stick to the facts about your decision without over explaining, blaming, or becoming defensive. If they try to talk you out of your decision, decide if the boundary you are trying to create is negotiable. Take time to decide on your own, or with your partner, if a compromise can be made.

There is always the possibility that your family will not respond well to your boundaries. Remember that this is a boundary that you decided to set for a reason, and you are not responsible for their feelings. Sometimes we have to accept that not everyone is going to understand or respect our boundaries. Boundaries are not made to hurt anyone or cut off a relationship. They are made to support our needs and mirror to others that we have self-worth, self-respect, and will not allow others to control our decisions.   

Decide how you want to respond to others’ negativity at family gatherings - When you go to a family gathering where you expect others’ statements or behaviors to bother you, plan out how you would like to respond to different scenarios. For example:

  • Decide what topics you will not discuss. If someone in your family brings up politics, religion, or some other topic that you know may lead to confrontation, change the subject. Think of topics that you would be willing discuss ahead of time so that you can smoothly transition a conversation to something else. Depending on the level of trust you have with your family, tell them in advance what conversations you are not willing to have.

  • Avoid confrontation. Remember that the only person you can control is yourself. If someone makes rude comments, decide if you are willing to brush it off. Responding in anger and frustration will only give them ammunition to make the situation worse. Holding in your frustration throughout the gathering may be difficult, and you may have pent up anger when you leave. Have a plan on how you will cope with that anger following the get together, such as venting to a friend, singing your favorite songs on the way home, journaling about the experience, etc.

  •  Have an exit plan. If someone is abusing you or someone else in some way or a family member’s behavior is so poor that you cannot handle being there, leave the situation. You never need to stay in a situation where you feel unsafe, manipulated, enraged, or shamed. If it is safe to do so, have this conversation ahead of time with your family. Tell them that if your aunt Beatrice gets drunk and criticizes everyone or your brother Tim and sister Jane yell and swear at each other the whole time, you’re going to leave early. Letting people know ahead of time what you will and won’t put up with will at least provide understanding as to why you’re deciding to leave early so that you don’t have to explain yourself at the time of the event.


Everyone has different types of families, different expectations and realities, and different levels of tolerance for stressful situation. No matter if your family stress feels big or small, therapy can be a great place for you to talk through your experience and find ways to better the holiday season, with or without your family. Call today to start your journey toward self-exploration, growth and healing.

Cyla FiskComment