Holiday Stress Series: Navigating Family Drama During the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

overwhelmed mom cooks holiday treats in the kitchen with her two sons

This post is the second in a three-part series offered to support parents with the most common stressors we’re hearing as we enter the 2023 holiday season. You can access the other posts in this series here: 10 Ways to Save Money on Gifts This Holiday Season and How to Avoid Overcommitting and Actually Enjoy the Season.

The holiday season is quite possibly the most opportune time for gathering together with friends and family. But, let’s be honest. Family get-togethers don’t create an abundance of excitement for everyone. For many, the thought of holiday gatherings fill them with anxiety and trepidation, rather than comfort and joy.

As a life coach for moms, I hear of these types of challenges from friends and clients alike. Family dynamics are nuanced for each of us and gathering with our family members can fill many people with dread. Differing personalities, viewpoints, and lifestyles are just some of the reasons many would rather NOT go home for the holidays. And while foregoing the event(s) altogether is an option, most would prefer to suck it up and deal with the existing challenges as opposed to risking the dynamics deteriorating even further.

For those who need some support to get through the holiday season with family with as little stress as possible, here are the two key strategies I recommend.

Make a Plan

Both as a host and a guest, we feel most comfortable when we are either in control or at least know what to expect. And if there’s a history of family tension during the holidays, then you’re likely expecting this holiday to be no different. So make a plan of things you can rely on to help you guide the event or at least respond if/when things go sideways. 

Here are a few examples:

  • If you’re the host and know certain family members don’t get along, consider asking them to stay clear of each other and/or of triggering discussion topics. Share that you’re asking the same of both of them because you love them and want them both to attend and put differences aside just for a few hours out of respect for you and the family.
  • Are you an introvert and get overstimulated by all the “peopling”? Plan to proactively incorporate breaks. A quick escape to the restroom or a brief drink outside might be just what you need to attend lively functions, while also managing your own emotional and physical needs.
  • Queue up activities you can include or leverage in a moment of crisis. Perhaps it’s sharing recent (or childhood) family photos, recapping the year with a focus on gratitude, or a quick game of “Would You Rather.” Pivoting to an activity that you already thought out ahead of time can help to ease anxiety and keep the event humming along.
  • If a guest or family member is being reclusive, disagreeable, or even combative, take a pause before reacting or making judgments. Take a moment to get curious instead (assuming this is an option). If the behavior is out of character, consider pulling them aside and asking if they’re ok. The holidays can be hard for a variety of reasons and we’ll never regret caring about the wellbeing of our loved ones. And in instances where the behavior is expected, yet still undesirable, consider why they act that way. If you can uncover the benefit they get from their behavior, you might be able to redirect them to a more positive way to have their needs met. If nothing else, the potential to see things from their perspective might just calm your nerves and allow you to engage a bit longer.

Set Boundaries

When the family dynamics aren’t new and you know the pitfalls to expect, you’re better prepared to know how you might be triggered and to identify boundaries in advance. All too often, boundaries are considered a method for telling others how to behave. And while it would be desirable to direct the actions of others, especially to prevent emotional harm, we’re all human and can only control ourselves. To that end, boundaries are rules for how we will engage with others and how we will respond to their actions/behaviors.

Consider these boundary examples:

  • Does Uncle Bob consistently make judgmental remarks about your child’s eating habits? Get intentional about how you’ll respond this year. Perhaps consider saying something along the lines of, “I know you have an opinion about how my child eats, but we clearly don’t agree. I’m willing to stay and visit longer, but only if we change the topic.”
  • When you visit family, do they sometimes ask inappropriate questions that you’d prefer not to answer? Decide ahead of time what you’ll say in response to such questions. For example, “I’m not willing to discuss that today. But I’d love to hear how xyz is going for you.” Or, “That’s a topic that I’m not elaborating on today.” And if questions continue, be sure to communicate what you will do if it doesn’t stop, such as, “I’ve already shared that I’m not willing to discuss this. If we cannot agree on a different topic, then I’ll have to excuse myself for a bit.”
  • Do you hate playing the piano, yet Aunt Mary always insists you play at the holiday party? Consider telling Aunt Mary ahead of time that you’ll limit piano time to X number of songs, because you’d like to make time for connecting and talking with family before you have to leave. Sometimes communicating our desire is all that’s needed to get people on board. But if Aunt Mary pushes the boundary, have your response ready so as not to resort to anger or resentment. Perhaps options to consider can include inviting someone else up to play or queuing up a digital playlist you enjoy or have curated specifically for this scenario.

Time with family during the holidays can be merry, stressful, and complicated. Take the examples above and modify them as necessary to meet your unique needs this holiday season. Perhaps with the right tools in your toolbox, you’ll find you can engage with family this holiday season and enjoy yourself more than you thought.

The Ultimate Holiday Guide: 2023 Edition is a free resource offering you some simple ideas to stress less this season. Inside you’ll find a gift-giving tracker, coupon templates, activities to keep the kiddos entertained, meal/party planning ideas, and even some tips to tend to your own well-being this season. It’s our gift to you! And if you’d prefer personalized support this holiday season, consider booking a complimentary 1:1 coaching consultation here to learn how coaching can help!

Tina Unrue

Tina Unrue

Hi! My name is Tina. I help moms prioritize themselves so that they can prevent burnout and truly connect with themselves and the people and things that matter most.