How to Cope at Stressful Holiday Gatherings with Your Family

holiday gatherings
Here is some advice for how to deal with family conflict during the holidays.
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Family holiday gatherings can be joyous occasions. But for some family members, they are stressful and less than enjoyable. 

A common issue is that some people have unrealistic expectations about how the holiday will go, and they are disappointed when it doesn’t pan out the way they envisioned. 

“Someone may think, ‘Christmas has to be perfect,’” said Lia Baldasano, LCSW-R, a licensed social worker whose counseling practice is in East Northport. “But that is unattainable.”

During the holiday season, people often see family members that they have not seen throughout the year. 

“There may be relatives you don’t enjoy spending time with,” said Sherri Kaplan, LCSW-R, a division director for several programs at CN Guidance & Counseling Services in Hicksville. In some cases, Baldasano said, “you may feel unsafe emotionally with certain relatives, due to past traumas.” 

Family members who have had a change in their situation, such as a recent divorce or a child who dropped out of school, may not relish discussing the matter with Uncle Joe or Aunt Lucy. “They may not want to answer questions for fear there will be judgment,” Kaplan said. 

Some relatives are prone to crossing boundaries, making critical comments or asking unwelcome personal questions, Baldasano said. “They may ask why you’re not dating someone or getting married, or make comments about your weight or physical appearance. I hear from young adults especially that they feel pressure to meet someone’s expectations for what they should be doing with their life, where they are financially, or that they should have a partner.”

Even when all family members are on their best behavior, unresolved conflicts can create stress. “Everyone may pretend everything is OK, but if it’s not, there’s a big elephant in the room,” Baldasano said. 

Though Covid-19 is not expected to impact this year’s family gatherings on the same scale as in the prior two years, it nonetheless will be a stressor for some, especially for families with elderly or immunocompromised members or those who have disagreements over Covid-19 protocols. 

“Some people may want to wear a mask to the gathering, but they may feel uncomfortable, wondering what reaction that will be met with,” Baldasano said. 

Similarly, differences in political views have been especially divisive in recent years, leading to heated arguments at many holiday tables. 

“You have family members who insist on imposing their political viewpoint, which can make others uncomfortable,” Baldasano said. 

Money also is a common holiday stressor, with some people feeling pressure to exchange expensive gifts or travel to family gatherings despite it being above their means. 

Many of these issues can be alleviated with honest conversations prior to the event, Kaplan said. 

“If there are sensitive topics that you don’t want everybody discussing and poking fun at, bring it up before the gathering and set boundaries,” Kaplan said. 

Discuss Covid-19 concerns in advance, too, and get creative about how to accommodate different comfort levels. 

“If someone is not comfortable coming, maybe they can still be included in a Secret Santa gift exchange and be connected to the celebration over Zoom,” Kaplan said. Having all family members take Covid-19 home tests just before the event may also assuage some concerns, Baldasano said.

Honesty is also the best policy for financial issues, Kaplan said. If you don’t have the budget to buy everyone a gift, don’t be afraid to communicate it in advance; others might be feeling the same way. “Maybe you can cook something or give homemade gifts, or maybe you can have a grab bag where everyone just buys one gift,” Kaplan said.

Besides honesty, distraction can be a useful tool. Creating new traditions, like playing board games or watching a holiday movie, can help keep political and other sensitive discussions in check, Kaplan said.

Practice self-care before and throughout the event, Baldasano advised. “Confide with your partner or a sibling to diffuse some of the anxiety you may be feeling,” she said. “Do gentle breathing to nice music to relax before you go, so you are coming from a good place. At the event, pay attention to yourself and how you feel and take a break if necessary. We tend to hold our breath when tense or anxious, so remember to breathe.” Limiting alcohol consumption may help you maintain better control over your reactions, she added.    

It’s also important to keep in mind that it’s OK to say no to some invitations or limit your time with family if you find these get-togethers too stressful.  

“Other family members may be disappointed, but, ultimately, you have to do what’s best for yourself,” Kaplan said.