Tips for Staying Strong When Dealing With Family During the Holidays

Updated August 19, 2021
Woman serving family members at dining room table during celebration meal

The holidays can be both a joyous and stressful time. You may be looking forward to eating Aunt Mary's famous apple crumb cake, or dreading seeing your obnoxious cousin who always manages to say the most inappropriate thing at exactly the wrong moment. You can't change the people in your family, but dealing with family during the holidays can be managed better, so you can avoid extreme stressors.

Set Realistic Expectations

You know your family members. You know which ones will come in hot; you know which ones will ask the uncomfortable questions before they even take their coats off, and you know the ones who will eat all of your food and bring absolutely nothing with them to add to the holiday dinner table. The good news is, this knowledge of your kin can help prepare you to deal with their behaviors proactively, to an extent. The bad news is, no matter how hard you try; you cannot change who they are. As you enter the holidays, set realistic expectations of the people in your life. Don't mistakenly think the people who have displayed the same negative traits or annoying habits are suddenly walking through your door as changed human beings.

Furthermore, set realistic expectations of yourself. Face your own flaws, acknowledge them and give yourself some grace. You are only human; and just as you can't expect family to transform in an instant, you also can't expect your own personality attributes to change simply because it's the holidays. It's always great to work on yourself and grow, but be realistic with the speed of such an undertaking. Evolution doesn't happen overnight.

Happiness moment of family at the beach

Know What You Can Control and What's Beyond Your Control

There will be factors surrounding family and the holidays that are in your control, and others that are out of your control. When something begins to grate on your nerves, think about whether you have the ability to control what is taking place. You don't have to insert yourself into overly stressful situations if not necessary. For example, you can't control your uncle's drinking, but you can control how much face-to-face time you have with him. You can't control how your sister and her children interact, but you can control how you interact with your own children.

Focus on the Positive, Not the Negative

Yes, you have some family members that are difficult, exhausting, and frustrating. Yes, the holiday season can be long, taxing, and demanding. It is all too easy to fall into a negative cycle of thinking, if you allow it. Keep your brain in a positive mental space. Don't focus on the negative occurrences that are popping up or the negative traits of family members. Shift to all that is positive. You are lucky to have a family to see over the holidays; some people spend the holidays alone. While the time you spend together may make you go insane at certain points, there are people out there who would give anything to hug a family member over the holidays. Those annoying aunts and uncles have to have a few endearing qualities. Think of what they are, and make them your mantra. Channel all that is good instead of dwelling on all that is bad.

Set Boundaries for Yourself

Boundaries are important; especially if you find spending the holidays with your family stressful. When you consider your own intentions and boundaries, decide what will be entirely off-limits for you. Remember that it is not your job to set their boundaries; you can only set your own.

  • Decide what your personal needs are during the holiday season. Keep those needs front and center, because you matter!
  • Be responsible with alcohol. The booze can exacerbate conflict and confrontation.
  • Decide if any topics are off-limits. They can ask, but you can choose to steer clear of touchy subjects.
  • Know how you will disengage with toxic family members. Have an exit plan if things get heated.

Setting boundaries may mean that you have to make a tough decision to walk away from a family gathering before it ends. If your boundaries are violated even after you've made them clear, simply let everyone know that you will go ahead and leave, but you love them all and will see them next year.

Practice Tolerance and Gratitude

The holidays are an excellent time to practice gratitude for those kooky loved ones you call family. It is also a great time to be thankful for all that you have in your life. Think of the things you hold dear and thank your lucky stars for, and focus on them. Use this seasonal time to remind yourself to be tolerant of other people. You never know what other people have going on in their lives. Show even the most trying relative kindness and patience during the holidays, because it might make a major impact in their universe.

Handling Stress Without Losing Your Mind

Even if your family is fairly Cleaver-esque, the holidays can still be stressful. Whatever the reason for your holiday tension, having a plan to handle stress is key. You can't always avoid troubling times, but you can positively navigate through them.

Live in the Real World

The Mayo Clinic staff suggests one way to handle holiday stress and avoid depression is not to expect every holiday to be perfect. If you assume all will go one way, and then plans take a sharp left, lean into the land of crazy and chaos, knowing that this is a normal part of life. Things happen, plans fall apart, families change, and the world keeps turning. Try your best to live in the moment and take the good with the bad. Family gatherings, holidays included, are bound to include a bit of both.

Take Care of Yourself

Learn a few deep breathing exercises, take up yoga and eat healthily and exercise. If you feel better before you attend the event, you'll be better able to handle any stress that crops up. Discover healthy ways to cope with stress and steer clear of unhealthy ways to escape the pressure of family and the holidays.

Mentally Prepare

One of the things taught in Dale Carnegie's motivational workshops is to imagine the absolute worst thing you think might happen, and how you'll react to it. More than likely, what really occurs will not be as bad as you imagined, but if it is, you'll be ready for it. Visualization is an excellent tool to navigate anxiety and stressful times.

Know When You Need a Minute

There will come a point in your festive gathering where you just need to get away. Spending time with family over the holidays is magical, but along with that magic comes a big fat side of stress. If you find yourself engaged in a heated conversation, or you recognize that you are growing increasingly irate with a family member, take a minute. Step away and gather yourself.

Woman looking overly stressed

Assemble the Support Troops

Maybe not everyone in the extended family is your cup of tea, but surely a few people are family as well as friends. If some of your most trusted family members will be joining you in your holiday celebrations, lean on them when you feel anxiety creeping in. Take their support when you begin to feel overwhelmed. If you are hosting a holiday gathering, select family members you know you can count on to help you out with parts of the celebration that bring you to your knees. There might be times where you feel alone, but if you look around, you will realize you aren't.

Remembering Family Members Who've Passed

Losing family is hard. You will notice that if your clan has suffered a loss, many of the family members will take this hit especially hard during the holidays. You can't bring back lost family members, but you can keep their memory alive over the holiday season.

  • Set a special place at the dinner table for family members who have passed away.
  • Cook a meal that was particularly special to a deceased family member, and serve it over the holidays.
  • Gather with family and share a special memory of the person who passed.

Making Happy Memories

Even if your family drives you crazy, they are still your family. Take the time to make happy memories each year, do your best to deal with the stress of large gatherings, and enjoy those who are still here with you. Alongside any difficult moments, there will still be happy memories made that will last many years into the future.

Tips for Staying Strong When Dealing With Family During the Holidays