Tips for Staying Strong When Dealing With Family During the Holidays

While holiday gatherings can be fun and magical, they can cause a lot of stress. Here's how to handle it.

Updated November 6, 2023
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 enjoying your grandma's famous apple crumb cake with some of your favorite people, while also dreading seeing certain relatives who get on your nerves.

Here's the truth: you can't change the people in your family. But luckily, there are some things you can do to better deal with them during the holidays. After all, you deserve to actually enjoy these celebrations instead of feeling totally stressed out.

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 that knowing what to expect can help you deal with their behaviors proactively. The bad news is, no matter how hard you try; you cannot change who they are. As you enter the holidays, try to stay realistic. Don't get your hopes up that the people who have displayed the same negative traits or annoying habits will suddenly change who they are.

Instead, 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 to change yourself just because it's the holidays. It's always great to work on yourself and grow, but 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 you can control, and others that you can't. 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. You can't control your family members' behavior or how much alcohol they drink, but you can control how much face-to-face time you have with them. You can't control how a sibling and their children interact, but you can control how you interact with your own children.

Need to Know

If you find your family is truly too toxic to be around, you have the choice to discontinue family gatherings during the holidays. Everyone's circumstances are unique, and there is no rule that says you have to be around people who continue to hurt you just for the sake of tradition.

Focus on the Positive, Not the Negative

Yes, you have might some difficult family members who are 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. So try to keep your brain in a positive mental space and focus on the positives.

While the time you spend together may be challenging at certain points, there are people out there who would give anything to hug a family member over the holidays. Maybe those aunts and uncles have a few endearing qualities you can lean into. Channel all that is good instead of dwelling on all that is bad.

Set Boundaries for Yourself

Boundaries are important; especially if you tend to get really stressed out at holiday family gatherings. 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.

  • Know 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 around the holidays. They can ask, but you can choose to steer clear of touchy subjects.
  • Prepare for 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.

Need to Know

Everyone deserves to set boundaries if they need to. You may need to set them with siblings, your children's grandparents, or even your adult children

Practice Tolerance and Gratitude

The holidays are an excellent time to practice gratitude for those 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.

It's also a good time to be more tolerant than you want to be. You never know what other people have going on in their lives. When you show kindness and patience during the holidays, even to the most difficult relatives, you might notice a big difference. Maybe they're having a hard time with the holidays too and just need someone to be extra kind.

Handling Stress and Still Enjoying the Holidays 

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 the hard times, but you can learn to work 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 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, eat healthily, and exercise. When you're in a better headspace and feel good physically, you'll be better able to handle any stress that crops up. Focus on 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 may come a point in your festive gathering where you just need to get away. 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. Give yourself permission to 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. Lean on them for support when you start to feel anxiety creeping in. 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 overwhelm you. 

Remembering Family Members Who've Passed

Losing a loved one is hard. If your clan has suffered a loss, many of the family members could take it 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

Every family has unique challenges, but that doesn't necessarily mean you want to cut ties with them. 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.

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Tips for Staying Strong When Dealing With Family During the Holidays