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Home for the Holidays: A Guide on How to Cope with Family Gatherings

December 6th, 2023


Family gatherings and holiday traditions can strengthen bonds and relationships. They can be a time of connection, joy, laughter, and celebration; however, not everybody has that experience. Facing various expectations during holiday gatherings can be stressful, daunting, frustrating, among a plethora of other uncomfortable emotions and thoughts. While some choose to say NO to seeing family all together, others endure hours of traffic and travel time, financial worries, criticism from relatives, unhealthy familial relationships, uncomfortable questions, and political polarization.

Let’s talk about how to cope with family interactions – good and bad – during the holidays.

Make Self-Care a Priority

If you care for yourself before the holiday season, you will be more likely to have the energy and mindset needed to act logically and rationally at holiday gatherings. Here are 6 examples of self-care you can incorporate into your schedule pre-holiday chaos:

  1. Prioritize 8 hours of sleep per night.
  2. Move your body for 30 minutes each day.
  3. Stay hydrated.
  4. Take a bath.
  5. Eat your favorite meal.
  6. Determine your boundaries before going to the gathering.

What if things get overstimulating and overwhelming during the gathering? Here are 5 coping tips to help survive the family gathering:

  • Find a quiet space to take slow deep breaths until you calm down. I usually suggest taking a 5-minute bathroom break if there isn't any quiet space.
  • If there are pets, play with them. Focus on how they feel, smell, and sound.
  • Go for a short walk.
  • If there is someone at the gathering that makes you feel comfortable, seek them out.
  • Don’t feel bad about leaving early and don’t carpool.

Healthy Communication is Key

Being able to communicate comfortably with others at family gatherings is essential to boundary setting. You want to leave at a certain time, but your mom is pressuring you to stay. Your uncle won't stop asking you political questions. Your great aunt keeps asking you when you are going to get married. Your nephew won't stop asking you for money. These are only a few examples of uncomfortable scenarios you may face at holiday gatherings. Below are tips on how to be assertive and set boundaries with others.

  1. Maintain eye contact.
  2. Listen without interrupting others.
  3. Keep your tone of voice steady.
  4. Be direct, clearly state needs and wants.
  5. Try starting a sentence with “I feel”.
  6. No detours – ignore attempts to sidetrack on to other topics.
  7. Don't accept criticism. Ask for clarification.
  8. If there are certain topics that are likely to come up, plan what you are going to say.
  9. Say “no”.
  10. Don’t apologize if you aren’t sorry.
  11. Avoid lying about why you feel or behave one way or another.

Healthy communication is about maintaining self-respect, while also being gentle, patient, and honest with others.

Balancing Family Expectations

Being able to compromise and negotiate, especially during the holidays, is key to maintaining boundaries and promoting positive experiences. Know your inflexible areas and your flexible areas when it comes to the holidays, family gatherings, and current hot topics. Inflexible areas are ideas, needs, and values that you will not compromise on. Flexible areas are ideas, needs, and values you feel less strongly about. Whether this applies to making plans leading up to the gathering, parts of the gathering it-self, or conversation during the event; Ellie Lisitsa, from The Gottman Institute, wrote these questions to help alleviate tension and balance expectations.

  1. Can you help me to understand why your “inflexible” needs or values are so important to you?
  2. What are your guiding feelings here?
  3. What feelings and goals do we have in common? How might these goals be accomplished?
  4. Help me to understand your flexible areas. Let’s see which ones we have in common.
  5. How can I help you to meet your core needs?
  6. What temporary compromise can we reach on this problem?

Creating Positive Memories

Whether you choose to attend a family gathering during the holidays because you want to, you feel like you must, or somebody important to you is requesting your presence, making the experience a positive one is in your best interest. Family gatherings, and the memories created by them, can be meaningful if you want them to be. According to the Chicago Tribune, you are more likely to remember an event if it is surprising and provokes emotion. Thus, if there is a family tradition you enjoy, be sure to participate in that tradition and maybe tweak it a little to boost the likeliness it will become a core memory. More so, slow down and use your 5 senses – taste, touch, smell, see, hear – to take in the space and all the little things that may bring you joy and happiness. Next, create an environment of appreciation. Show gratitude toward the host and others who have made you feel comfortable in the uncomfortable. Lastly, use the coping tips and communication skills above as needed.

Stress-free holidays aren't impossible if you are willing to prioritize your mental health and well-being. If you take care of yourself, communicate with respect towards yourself and others, are willing to compromise, and allow yourself to be present during a holiday gathering, hopefully the experience will be as magical as you hoped. Happy holiday gatherings are in your future!

Sources Used

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