Skip to main content

Family gatherings are a wonderful opportunity to spend quality time with rich traditions and delicious food. That is, until Aunt Sally brings up that one time your cousin forgot her birthday, and the drama is unleashed.

Family is an integral part of what makes the holidays special. The American Psychological Association’s research found that 53 percent of people mentioned family and/or friends as one of their favorite parts of the holidays. But the same research found that 44 percent said family causes stress during the holidays (aka, those relatives who always ask nosy questions about your singleness).

In my work as a therapist, I often help clients manage their concerns about well-meaning relatives asking insensitive questions. Much of our work focuses on emotional management because while you can’t always prevent inappropriate questions or touchy subjects, you can develop strategies to keep your cool no matter what drama is going on this season.

01. Accept That Drama Can Happen

There are a few theories out there on why the holidays are so stressful when it comes to family. For starters, everyone is out of their routine. The alcohol will likely be flowing along with an indulgent approach to food. People are likely not getting enough sleep.

This can be a recipe for no one being at their best, professor Bethann Bierer, PhD, tells The Atlantic. Lack of sleep is linked to an increased risk for irritability and stress, and alcohol consumption can impair cognitive abilities. Rather than labeling a holiday with even a whiff of family drama as a failure, recognize that everyone is likely coping with their own increased stress from tiredness, sugary foods, and booze.

02. Seek Common Ground

Psychologist Chris Logan, PhD tells The Atlantic that because there is a high degree of similarity among family members, we tend to focus on what makes us different from one another. And those differences can also be sources of annoyance and stress. You might find yourself noticing how your cousin’s laid-back approach to life rubs you the wrong way. But you also might find a relative passive-aggressively questioning your career choice, political views, relationship status, or sense of style.

Instead of being on alert for qualities that set you apart from one another, focus on what you have in common and what brings you together. Maybe you all share a passion for a particular sports team or sharing old family stories. Make these the topics of conversation instead.

03. Shift Your Mindset

Prior expectations have a significant impact on emotions and experiences during any family gathering. If you head to a holiday party expecting that a family member will irk you, you're more likely to spot those annoying qualities. But if you go with the intention of enjoying yourself and focusing on the good, you're more likely to spot all the positives in your surroundings. Psychiatrist Dan Siegel calls this “priming” your brain to better notice favorable experiences. Look for those times when everyone is laughing at the same joke or playing a hilarious game of Pictionary.

04. Don’t React

If you start to lose your cool after your uncle asks if you are “still doing that weird start-up job,” your first instinct might be to feel defensive and react with a snippy retort. Angela Mitakidis, a mediator and manager of Southern Methodist University’s Conflict Resolution center recommends responding in way that diffuses the tension, like asking if they’d like another helping of stuffing. If you find your muscle tension or heartbeat rising, take a few deep breaths, choose to not engage, and change the subject. Not only will you keep the peace, but you’ll find it’s much easier to distance yourself from and let go of your anger.

05. Don’t Forget Self-Care

The holidays are a busy time, and that means it can be all too easy to let your self-care practices fall by the wayside. The American Psychological Association report on stress found that both men and women experience an increase in stress during the holidays, but women experience more stress than men (44 percent versus 31 percent). Women were more likely to report that they feel like they can't take time to relax during the (oft self-inflicted) crunch to get everything done. The report also found women more likely to engage in unhealthy ways of coping with stress like turning to food or alcohol.

Remember that practicing self-care is one of the best ways to minimize and even prevent the negative effects of stress. It is even more essential during the busy holiday season. You might have to modify your plan (thirty minutes of exercise instead of your usual sixty or indulging in a nap when you usually don’t) to sustain your self-care routine. I always encourage my clients to keep their self-care routines going strong at all times.

Armed with these five tips, it will be much easier to manage the family madness. You’ll be surprised to find how you’re able to more freely enjoy the festivities and warmth that the holidays bring.

Photo Credit: The Kitcheners