How to Deal with Stressful Family Relationships during the Holidays – Part 1

Those who say that the holidays are the “most wonderful time of year” did not grow up with difficult family dynamics. As a counsellor who helps people with struggles pertaining to families, many clients feel the holidays are far from wonderful.

During the final months of every year, most of us are overwhelmed with images of happy families celebrating together over our screens. For many people, these picture-perfect Instagram posts, advertisements, and holiday movies can be a reminder of what we don’t have (or didn’t have), which can trigger feelings of isolation, loneliness, and depression. The truth is there are far more people dealing with family “stuff” than meets the eye, they just do not post about their struggles all over social media.

This is why we compiled a list to help guide you to cope with strained family relationships during the holiday season, this may help some of you who are dealing with similar issues feel less alone and more supported.

Ask Yourself WHY You Are Going Home For the Holidays

If you feel conflicted or uncomfortable about visiting your family during the holidays, it is important to consider:
what is the reason for returning home in the first place? Are you going because it is expected of you? Or do you feel guilty if you don’t? Are you truly excited about reconnecting with some family members and creating new memories?

It is important for you to understand what your reasons are for visiting family and whether those reasons are serving you and will be bringing you joy. If visiting family comes at the expense of your mental health, then the cost is too high. Once your reasons are clear, it is easier to make a decision that is more important to your well-being, and you may feel less guilty if you decide to skip certain gatherings to protect your peace.

Lower Your Expectations and Take Breaks When You Need To

It is very important to have a realistic outlook and know that things can go wrong with your family. You can hope that nothing happens but beginning with an accepting attitude can help you from getting your hopes up and as a result, soften the blow if things do go sideways. It also helps to step away from difficult moments by practicing some mindfulness. Nature is always a great way to achieve this as it is beautiful and restorative, so stepping out for a bit and taking a few breaths, or taking a walk break before you go back and interact with the family can give you some perspective and help you have a calmer headspace.

Establish Boundaries With Your Family Ahead of Time

Rather than bearing the responsibility of managing tricky family dynamics on your own, share it with your family weeks ahead of time. For example, communicate off-limit topics ahead of time and ask that they respect your boundaries. If you know there are certain patterns that tend to come into play this time of year, seek some clarity on how they would like to navigate these situations to avoid conflict. We are all mutually responsible and capable of co-creating a family space that is respectful and enjoyable. Also, take the time to listen to family members and ask them how you can support them.

Remind Yourself That It Is Ok To Say No

For many of us, saying no to elders is like adding oil to water. So in general, setting up boundaries with loved ones can be tough for many reasons. It sounds simple, but remind yourself people will survive if you do set boundaries. For example, politely turn down physical gestures that may make you feel uncomfortable such as hugs or kisses, or calmly decline to engage in certain conversations at the dinner table. Small things can help you get more comfortable drawing these lines. And remember, that you are not responsible for how others react to you set a boundary, you are responsible for your delivery.

Set Limits with Family Members Who Share Different Religious Views

Holidays can become tricky if your family is made up of people with religious views and practices that are different from your own. Entering a church building is too activating for you, or maybe you struggle with family downtime when the unsolicited advice starts to flow. Setting a limit on these might look like saying “Thank you for the invite, I can be there at 5, but I will need to be on the road again by 7”, or maybe “I appreciate the invitation to the Christmas Eve service, but this year I will join you afterward at the house”. Your family might be upset that you are setting these limits, but it is your job to establish your boundaries, not to manage how others feel about them.